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Trudeau touts democracy, freedom and trade ties in visit to Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA — There is lots of work to do to fight for progressive values and workers on both sides of the Canada-United States border, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday during a trip to Philadelphia.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference in New York on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023. Trudeau is in Philadelphia today, on his first trip south of the border since his government launched a new "Team Canada" charm offensive in the United States. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

PHILADELPHIA — There is lots of work to do to fight for progressive values and workers on both sides of the Canada-United States border, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday during a trip to Philadelphia.

The trip arose through an invitation to speak at the quadrennial North American convention of the Service Employees International Union but a big chunk of his day was spent in meetings with politicians and business leaders, including vice-president Kamala Harris and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro.

It was his first trip south of the border since launching a new "Team Canada" charm offensive that renewed the sales approach that began during the first presidency of Donald Trump, when unpredictable trade decisions tested the U.S.-Canada relationship.

That approach sought out regular meetings beyond the White House, with members of the U.S. Congress, state governments, municipal leaders and business executives, all to ensure they understood and agreed that strong ties with Canada are beneficial on both sides of the border.

While the approach didn't die off altogether, it lost some steam after President Joe Biden won, providing the Liberals a U.S. government that shares more of its values and policies.

That closeness was evident Tuesday when both Trudeau and Harris delivered speeches to the SEIU that overlapped considerably, including discussions about making medicine cheaper, protecting abortion rights and raising wages.

Trudeau did not agree his presence was an implicit endorsement of Biden — he insists he is not picking sides in another country's election.

And Trudeau and Canada's ambassador in Washington, Kirsten Hillman, insist that Canada's approach would be the same with or without Trump on the ballot in November.

"This is a message that is relevant at any given time," Trudeau told reporters.

Trudeau deflected questions about how concerned he is by the possibility of a Trump presidency 2.0, saying what worked before should work again.

"One of the things we saw during Mr. Trump's first term was that the best argument as to why Canada shouldn't be hit with tariffs or punitively protectionist measures was that it would hurt American jobs as well," Trudeau said.

"That's why I pointed out today that here in Pennsylvania, Canada is the number one export partner for the state, greater than the next four foreign destinations combined."

Canada likes to point out that 7.8 million U.S. jobs depend on trade with Canada, while 2.2 million Canadian jobs depend on trade with the U.S.

He appeared to find a new ally in Shapiro, elected governor for the first time just two years ago but who is considered a rising Democratic party star in the U.S. with thoughts of running for the presidency in 2028.

The two shared a brief bilateral meeting before sharing the stage at a Canadian reception for Philadelphia business leaders, artists and academics.

Shapiro told Trudeau that he hoped to lead Pennsylvania to become the top renewable energy state in the U.S., following what he said was Canada's leadership on the file.

He even parroted one of Trudeau's favourite lines about diversity being a strength.

Both leaders touted the need to defend freedom and democracy from rising levels of misinformation, attacks against institutions and a growing sense of distrust among citizens of their leaders.

In his speech to thousands of delegates at the SEIU convention, Trudeau highlighted his government's record supporting unions but also gave them his pitch on the need for growing the U.S.-Canada relationship.

"At this moment of global crises and deep uncertainty, Canada and the United States know that we can count on each other," Trudeau said.

"Today, more than ever, we should remind ourselves of how priceless a partnership like ours is."

Americans are headed toward a presidential election that will be pivotal for both countries.

A potential return to the White House by Donald Trump brings back memories of the difficult bilateral relationship during his first term.

He has already promised to introduce a 10 per cent flat import tax on all countries if he wins a second time.

Trudeau and Hillman brushed off that threat to Canada Tuesday, saying the North American free trade agreement that was renegotiated under Trump's presidency at his demand, protects Canada from any such imposition.

Canada is the single biggest player for exports in the U.S. economy, representing almost one-fifth of total American exports. Mexico accounts for about one-sixth and China accounts of less than one-tenth.

But the U.S. is a much more dominant market for Canadian exports, accounting for 77 per cent of all Canadian exports in 2023, or almost $600 billion.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 21, 2024.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press