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Washington rolls out red carpet for Justin Trudeau

by Bruce Campion-Smith (feat. Colin Robertson)

The Star
March 7, 2016

OTTAWA—Washington is preparing to roll out the red carpet for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau to fete a Canadian leader in a way that hasn’t been done for almost two decades.

Thursday’s state dinner at the White House — a chic and relatively rare event — promises to grab the spotlight when Trudeau visits with U.S. President Barack Obama.

But it’s the symbolism of the state dinner and the substance of Trudeau’s Oval Office meeting with Obama scheduled for earlier that day that together signal the president’s interest in making the visit a success, observers say.

“It’s really clear that the president has invested in this visit,” said Paul Frazer, a former Canadian ambassador who now works as a consultant in Washington.

“He wants this to be a success for the prime minister and for Canada-U.S. relations.”

Indeed, Trudeau’s first visit to the U.S. capital since winning office last fall is seen as a chance by both sides to repair the strained relations that marked the latter years of Stephen Harper’s time as prime minister.

In his short time as prime minister, Trudeau has created a buzz south of the border, appearing in a photo shoot with Vogue magazine, being declared as the “anti-Trump” by the Washington Post and doing a sit-down interview with 60 Minutes that aired Sunday night .

“There is a real curiosity in the best sense of the word,” Frazer said. “This is rare. It’s an opportunity.”

The president and prime minister

Trudeau and Obama “click,” says former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson.

The two leaders first met at the G20 meeting in November in Turkey and had a formal sit-down several days later on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Manila.

It was a relaxed meeting and Obama spoke effusively about Trudeau, praising the “incredible excitement” the prime minister stirred with his campaign and predicting he would bring “energy and reform” to Canada.

Both are family men, both rode a message of hope and change to electoral success. Trudeau, 44, is a decade younger than Obama. Robertson speculates that Obama feels a kinship with the new Canadian leader.

“I think he sees in Trudeau someone who was not unlike himself eight years ago before the hard realities of governing,” Robertson said.

The upbeat mood of the coming visit stands in stark contrast to the chilly ties under former Harper, when the Keystone XL pipeline came to dominate the relationship.

The White House’s refusal to approve the energy project to carry Alberta oilsands crude through the American Midwest came to overshadow the Canada-U.S. relationship, sparking a bitterness on Harper’s part that he could not mask.

Trudeau is trying to stay clear of the politics of the current presidential race, even the prospect that Donald Trump could be in the White House.

“We have to remember that ideology can’t drive our relationship. It has to be pragmatic, focused on the things where we do agree and making sure we are creating jobs and opportunities for Canadians,” he told Vancouver’s News 1130.

Policy: Climate change, trade and security

Those are issues are certain to top discussions when Trudeau and Obama meet.

With Trudeau’s government adopting climate change and the environment as a top priority, the Obama administration now feels it has a willing partner on the issue north of the border.

The two leaders will be keen to showcase their co-operation on the file — forged at the climate change conference in Paris last December — with the promise of joint action to keep momentum going.

Canada’s priorities have traditional centered on trade and border access while the U.S. remains focused on terror and security issues.

“Our ask is always to get goods and people across the border because especially with the American economy in recovery, that will do more for Trudeau’ electoral fortunes four years from now if our economy recovers,” former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson said.

He says Washington is certain to push Canada on security issues, such as sharing information on travellers crossing the border.

Discussions are certain to extend beyond bilateral issues to touch on topics such as the joint efforts against Daesh, the group also known as ISIS and ISIL. Canada’s efforts to welcome Syrian refugees could come up, given the resistance south of the border to a similar move.

Insiders caution that the true measure of the meeting will about the tone of the conversation and resetting the relationship.

“There are obviously joint deliverables that we are talking about but there isn’t a wish list going into the meeting. It’s really about how do we repair the relationship at this point and move forward,” one senior government official told the Star.

The Pomp: One dinner. Months of planning

On Thursday, Trudeau will join the ranks of other leaders, from Queen Elizabeth to Indira Gandhi to Mikhail Gorbachev who have been feted at a White House state dinner.

The invites are done in careful calligraphy. The centerpiece floral arrangements are overseen by the White House floral designer. The china settings selected — there are seven to choose from for a full state dinner.

The meal will run four or five courses and feature a personal touch to acknowledge the visiting leader.

In a town well-accustomed to the trappings of power and influence, these dinners still stand out. “They are not held very often so they are stand-out events from the usual receptions and other events that can take place at the White House,” said a historian with the White House Historical Association.

There will be members of Congress, cabinet members from both countries, the respective ambassadors — Bruce Heyman, the U.S. ambassador in Ottawa and David MacNaughton, Canada’s newly installed diplomat in Washington. There’s likely to be a sprinkling of celebrities.

The Canadian delegation gets 20 tickets. That delegation will include Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion; International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland; Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan; Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and Hunter Tootoo, minister of fisheries, oceans and the Coast Guard.

Jean Chrétien was the last prime minister to enjoy a state dinner, then hosted by U.S. president Bill Clinton in 1997.

Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, was the guest of honour at three state dinners – in 1969, with President Richard Nixon as host; in 1974 with President Gerald Ford; and again in 1977 with President Jimmy Carter.


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