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Firm handshakes, hard lines: Trudeau, Biden to talk protectionism, Haiti, migration

OTTAWA — U.S. President Joe Biden arrived Thursday evening in Ottawa for a whirlwind 27-hour visit expected to focus on both the friendly and thorny aspects of the Canada-U.S.
President of the United States Joe Biden and his wife Jill, left, meet with Governor General Mary Simon after their arrival in Ottawa, Thursday, March 23, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — U.S. President Joe Biden arrived Thursday evening in Ottawa for a whirlwind 27-hour visit expected to focus on both the friendly and thorny aspects of the Canada-U.S. relationship, including protectionism and migration on both sides of the border.

The welcoming party for the president and first lady Jill Biden included Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, the American ambassador to Canada, David Cohen, and Canada's envoy in the U.S., Kirsten Hillman.

Biden began his time in Ottawa by meeting Gov. Gen Mary Simon.The U.S. president along with the first lady were then greeted byPrime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, at their home at Rideau Cottage.

"This will be the first true, in-person bilateral meeting between the two leaders in Canada since 2009," said White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.

Biden is hell-bent on restoring blue-collar American manufacturing to its former glory, considers free trade a dirty word and wants Canada to wade voluntarily into a failed, gang-ravaged state that's a quagmire waiting to happen.

To be sure, Biden is no Donald Trump. But he doesn't always make it obvious.

The first year of his term focused on rebuilding Canada-U.S. relations following Trump's divisive term in office. The second focused on meeting obligations, "including prioritizing orderly and safe migration through regular pathways," Kirby said.

"Now, heading into the third, this visit is about taking stock of what we've done, where we are and what we need to prioritize for the future."

While he's far less undiplomatic and publicly combative than his both-barrels predecessor, Biden's first two years in the Oval Office produced more than enough political headaches for Trudeau.

Friday's meetings are expected to offer at least one remedy.

A Biden administration official said the two countries will agree to expand the 2004 treaty that governs how the two countries handle asylum seekers who cross their shared border. 

The U.S. will agree to extend the treaty, known as the Safe Third Country Agreement, to apply all along the world's largest international border. It currently only applies at official entry points, which is why it's often blamed for fuelling a recent surge in would-be refugees at places like Roxham Road in Quebec. 

In exchange, Canada will agree to welcome an additional 15,000 migrants from across the Western Hemisphere over the next year on a humanitarian basis, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The agreement is the culmination of discussions between Trudeau and Biden at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles last June, a migration-heavy meeting where Canada agreed to admit just 4,000 more migrants by 2028.

There's an upside for Biden, too, who faces political headwinds on the immigration file — some of which are coming from Canada.

"The numbers don't lie: illegal border crossings and illegal drug trafficking are increasing along America's northern border," said Matt Knoedler, a spokesman for Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly.

Kelly is one of the founding members of the Northern Border Security Caucus, a group of 28 Republican members of Congress who are pressuring the Biden administration to shore up border security along the country's northern flank.

"Members of the Northern Border Security Caucus encourage both leaders to have a productive dialogue on this matter during the meeting."

The next thing on Canada's wish list? Frank talk on Buy American, the age-old protectionist doctrine resurrected by every 21st-century president short of George W. Bush and one of Biden's favourite domestic political messages.

"The president is very committed to policies that create jobs in the United States, and we don't take issue with that policy," said Kirsten Hillman, Canada's ambassador to the U.S.

"What we say is … when you apply it to Canada and deeply integrated Canada supply chains, it does not serve your policy purpose. It does the exact opposite."

Fully 60 per cent of the physical goods that Canada sells stateside "go into the manufacturing of other products," and much the same is true of what Canada buys from the U.S., she added.

"So if we start carving each other out of our supply chains, the economic impact on jobs in our own country is going to be enormous. We're shooting ourselves in the foot, essentially — both countries."

Canada is also likely to be playing defence on Haiti, the impoverished, quake-ravaged Caribbean nation that has devolved into a failed state since the 2021 assassination of president Jovenel Moïse.

Roving gangs now control more than half of Port-au-Prince, the capital city of a country in the grips of a cholera outbreak with little access to medical help, a near-total lack of public security and a powerless interim government.

The Biden administration, its hands full with Russia's war in Ukraine, the rise of China and other great-power concerns, wants Canada — home to a large diaspora of French-speaking Haitians, mostly in Quebec — to take a lead role.

"I am hopeful … that Canada will be able to step in and take some leadership in Haiti, because that will matter in Washington," said Gordon Giffin, who served as Bill Clinton's envoy to Ottawa from 1997 to 2001.

"Taking that one off of our menu would be a big help to the U.S. administration."

Though it might seem simplistic at the highest levels of intergovernmental relations, the quid pro quo approach is foundational to how countries get along and manage various irritants in the relationship, he suggested.

"I do think it's a prototypical example of the United States saying, 'We need you to help us out on this one,'" Giffin told a panel hosted by the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

He recalled the frequent interactions between his old boss and Jean Chrétien, who was prime minister while Clinton was in the White House and a man Giffin described as "the consummate dealmaker."

Chrétien "looked for places where Bill Clinton needed a little bit of help," Giffin said.

"I would very quickly hear, 'OK, we're going to do this, Gordon, but for that, I need this,'" he said in his best Chrétien drawl. "I'm sorry, that's just human nature, and it's part of the deal."

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby would not say Wednesday whether Biden intends to make a direct demand of Trudeau on Haiti.

"They share a concern about the dire situation down there from a security and humanitarian perspective — this is not something that is unfamiliar to either the prime minister or the president," Kirby said.

"As for a multinational force or anything like that, I don't want to get ahead of the conversation here. But as we've said before, if there's a need for that, if there's a place for that, that's all going to have to be worked out directly with the Haitian government and with the UN."

Senior government officials in Ottawa say the discussion on Haiti will involve the two leaders, but not Haitians themselves. Trudeau has so far focused on sanctions, helping Haitian authorities with surveillance support to track gang activity, and building a political consensus on how the West can best help.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the U.S. believes the worsening situation will not improve "without armed security assistance from international partners," and it will co-ordinate with partners including Canada on "next steps on the force and other actions." 

Carleton University professor Stephen Saideman, who once worked with the U.S. Department of Defense, said Ottawa is trying to avoid that at all costs.

"This government does not want to suffer tremendous costs or cement tremendous risks," Saideman said.

He noted that Canada's largest deployment is currently in Latvia and Ottawa has agreed to expand its presence to shore up that country's border with Russia.

It would be impossible to expand that force while leading an intervention in Haiti, particularly because each deployed unit generally requires a second unit undergoing training and a third recovering from the previous rotation, he added.

In addition, gang violence would be significantly riskier than past missions aimed at preventing clashes between warring armies, such as in Bosnia or Cyprus.

"I'm not saying we shouldn't do it, but I can see why the government is cautious about it," said Saideman, who is director of the Canadian Defence and Security Network.

"In Haiti, this has not been the first rodeo," he said. "The previous missions didn't fix things, didn't lead to a lasting solution."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2023.

— With files from James McCarten in Washington and Dylan Robertson and Nojoud Al Mallees in Ottawa

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version provided an incorrect name for the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.