By Edward KeenanWashington Bureau Chief
Fri., Nov. 19, 2021timer4 min. read
updateArticle was updated 19 mins ago
WASHINGTON—When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the U.S. capital this week for the first time since President Joe Biden’s election, two remarkable timing coincidences illustrated the situation Canada faces in its dealings with its biggest and closest ally. You could say they outline the “state of the relationship” — which is a lead-in to the first coincidence.
The Canadian American Business Council, run by former diplomat Scotty Greenwood, hosts an annual “State of the Relationship” gala dinner in Washington that is as big a function for those who work on cross-border issues as exists. This year’s gala — at a ritzy hotel with an astounding view of the White House through its open windows — had been scheduled for Nov. 17 long before it was announced that the prime minister would be attending a White House summit the next day.
Naturally, that meant Trudeau and key members of his cabinet would join the festivities — the prime minister’s speech suddenly becoming the main event. “Canada and the U.S. are bestest of friends,” Trudeau said as his closing line, drawing huge laughs from the corporate executives and U.S. administration officials I was seated with.
The sentiment may be standard issue for a politician — “This is one of the easiest relationships you can have as an American president and one of the best,” Biden said the next day — but it was also vividly felt in a room filled with people who work every day on cross-border economic, cultural and political issues. The formal presentations involved dozens of mayors and governors and members of Parliament and Congress testifying to how beloved was the relationship between the two countries.
That was a stark contrast to the other coincidence of the visit. Trudeau’s agenda in town was topped by concern about an electric vehicle subsidy included in Biden’s economic plan, which would apply only to American-made, union-made vehicles. Trudeau said again and again during his visit that this threatened Canadian companies and jobs that have for decades been seamlessly integrated into a U.S.-headquartered continental auto sector.
So it was a bit of a slap that the House of Representatives passed that measure, alongside the rest of the economic package, on Friday, just hours after Trudeau left town.
You could add a further coincidence: on Wednesday, as Trudeau spoke to Congress and hobnobbed at the gala, Biden was at an auto plant in Michigan, bragging about the coming electric vehicle subsidy and the new green American jobs it would create.
The White House’s background briefings and advance proclamations about the summit made no mention of Trudeau’s key issue. And while the Prime Minister’s Office featured it prominently in its reports about the Biden-Trudeau meeting, the White House recap of their one-on-one meeting made no mention it.
This doesn’t reflect malice so much as obliviousness. Like Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi personally greeted Trudeau and said it was an honour to meet with him, just two days before passing the measure he’d been there to oppose.
For the Democrats, the vehicle subsidy is a small but politically very popular part of a giant domestic spending package that’s at the core of Biden’s agenda. Getting that package through their caucus has been like herding cats — very agitated cats who don’t like each other. Domestically, their electoral prospects are disastrous, even as they see themselves locked in a struggle for U.S. democracy with the Trumpian forces who staged the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. In foreign affairs, they’re in with what they see as an existential struggle with China for global dominance, and a constant political obsession with migrant flows at their southern border. And, there’s this pandemic you might have heard about.
American officials know their old reliable bestest friend has some concerns about this vehicle subsidy. But in their minds, it isn’t on the list of emergencies they’re trying to juggle — it barely made any news in the U.S. during the summit.
On the face of it, it doesn’t seem like it should be all that big a deal for an old friend to word its protectionist measures in a way that includes its pal Canada inside the bubble, as it has for car manufacturing for decades. It’s a tweak, and one the U.S. has made plenty of times before, one aligned with the trade agreements it has signed. It just complicates a political slogan — one being brandished at a politically complicated time.
Which might be where those cross-border relationships so evident at the business council gala become key. Scotty Greenwood, who hosted that event, is always telling me about the importance of things like the “Canada-U.S. partnership road map” signed earlier this year, or the announcements of working groups or agendas for future discussions coming out of meetings like this week’s summit. It’s in those less high-profile followup discussions where the details get worked out, and maybe where the strength of long-standing relationships can be put to use — outside the news cycle.
The state of the relationship, as illustrated by these two coincidences of timing, is that the fellow feeling for Canadians is strong in the U.S., but that Canada’s issues barely rate a footnote on the American agenda. The challenge for Canada is trying to find a way to use the friendship to avoid getting swamped by the headlines.