Montreal, Canada – In 1969, then-Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau famously described Canada’s proximity to the United States as akin to sleeping with an elephant: “No matter how friendly or even-tempered is the beast … one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”
Decades later, with Joe Biden in the White House, the “elephant” to Canada’s south will at least be more predictable than it was under Donald Trump, said Daniel Beland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada at McGill University in Montreal.
“The Trump years were very hard in terms of Canada-US relations. It was a rollercoaster,” Beland told Al Jazeera. “With Biden, it’s a return to more stability in Canada-US relations.”
Biden’s decision to hold his first official meeting with a foreign head of government – with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – on Tuesday is part of that return to a more predictable relationship between the two neighbours, Beland said.
Most US presidents stay close to home on their first trip abroad, with many flying to Ottawa, the Canadian capital, within their first months in office – though Trump eschewed that tradition when he took his inaugural trip abroad to Saudi Arabia in 2017.
While Biden and Trudeau will meet virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Beland said choosing Canada sends a message. “It’s Biden sticking to tradition and I think this is sending a signal that Canada is still an important partner of the United States,” he said.
The two countries share the world’s longest land border and bilateral trade between them totalled $725bn in 2019 – almost $2bn a day, according to US State Department figures.
The relationship was tested under the Trump administration – which forced Canada and Mexico to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and imposed tariffs on Canadian aluminium and steel.
While Trudeau was careful to maintain cordial relations with Trump, the ex-president called Trudeau “two-faced” in 2019 after a video surfaced showing the Canadian prime minister laughing with other world leaders about a Trump news conference during a NATO summit in London. The two leaders were quick to downplay the minor public spat.
Nevertheless, US-Canada ties remained strong during the Trump years. But now, Trudeau has more in common with Biden than he did with Trump, said Donald Abelson, director of the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government at St Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia.
He pointed out that the two leaders have met in-person before – when Biden served as US vice president – and they get along well.
“It’s very important when you focus on the bilateral relationship between the two countries to have a prime minister and a president who get along, and who are able to identify common concerns and find constructive ways to move forward,” Abelson told Al Jazeera.
Canada and the US share one of the strongest and deepest friendships between any two countries in the world. On Tuesday, I’ll be meeting virtually with @POTUS @JoeBiden – we’ll focus on ending the pandemic, growing the middle class and creating jobs, and fighting climate change.
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) February 20, 2021
Before their meeting on Tuesday, the leaders said they looked forward to deepening the relationship between the countries, and Trudeau said they would discuss ways to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, create jobs and fight climate change.
The White House announced Tuesday morning that Biden and Trudeau will unveil a new joint initiative: “The U.S.-Canada Partnership Roadmap”.
“The Roadmap is a blueprint for our whole-of-government relationship, based on our shared values and commitment to work in partnership on areas of mutual concern, such as the recovery from COVID-19 and global health security, efforts to combat climate change and shared priorities in defense and security,” said a fact sheet distributed by the White House. “Through the Roadmap, we will also advance our shared vision of prosperity, diversity, equity, and justice for all our citizens.”
Both the US and Canada are working to secure COVID-19 vaccines to get the pandemic under control and looking at ways to help spur their hard-hit economies. The US-Canada border will remain closed to non-essential travel until at least March 21 due to the coronavirus, however, Canadian officials said this week.
Abelson also said the two leaders would discuss energy policy, as well as the Biden administration’s push to re-engage with multilateral institutions, such as NATO and the United Nations – something that suffered under Trump.
Close ties do not mean Biden and Trudeau will agree on everything though.
Trudeau expressed disappointment last month when Biden nixed Keystone XL, a contentious 1,947-km (1,210-mile) pipeline that was set to stretch from the Canadian province of Alberta to the US state of Nebraska. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was especially angered by that decision.
Trudeau will also be eager to ensure trade with Canada remains a priority for Biden amid a growing “Buy America” movement that aims to prioritise US producers.
“Prime Minister Trudeau wants to make sure that Canadian producers are not cut out of the equation,” Abelson told Al Jazeera.
Beland added Trudeau will need to tread carefully as he tries to engineer an economic recovery.
“We have to be diplomatic because we realise that if the relationship between the two countries is spoiled … it can be really costly,” he said. “In times of pandemic like this, we really need to collaborate with the US on issues of border control and public health, but especially on economic issues.”
China will also be a topic of discussion on Tuesday, said Beland.
Tensions have escalated between Ottawa and Beijing since 2018, when Chinese authorities detained two Canadians after law enforcement officials arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a US extradition request.
The US has accused Meng of fraud – a charge she denies – and her extradition case is still before a Canadian court, while Canada has alleged China detained Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in retaliation for Meng’s arrest. Beijing, which has accused the pair of spying, rejects that accusation.
Canada, the US and 56 other nations last week signed onto a non-binding resolution denouncing arbitrary detention for political purposes. While the signatories said the measure applied to countries around the world, it was viewed as a rebuke of China.
“The Huawei affair is directly related to an extradition order from the US, so I think the US could do quite a bit here to facilitate the release of the two Michaels, or at least help with the situation because they have way more weight than [Canada has],” Beland said.
Canada-China tensions are likely to escalate further after the Canadian parliament passed a non-binding motion on Monday describing Beijing’s treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority in the western province of Xinjiang as genocide.
Before the motion was passed, Cong Peiwu, China’s ambassador to Canada, rejected the genocide accusation and urged Ottawa to “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs” to avoid worsening the countries’ relationship.