Trudeau and Trump Hold First Official Meeting in Washington

Leaders talk building bridges and close cooperation, easing Canadian tensions about enduring chaotic CA-U.S. relations under a Trump presidency
By: Leah Ching, Editor-in-Chief

International diplomacy is no simple matter, especially when those relations are between Canada and the United States. The two neighbours are inextricably tied together by intertwined histories that give rise to extremely malleable cultural borders, and interconnected economic and political interests.

Given the close ties between the two nations, much attention has been given to the historic relationships between Canadian prime ministers and American presidents, with some cultivating diplomatic relationships that spill over into friendships, and others settling for a relationship of cordial tolerance.

In past years, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and President Ronald Reagan shared ties that were remarkably close, forging a friendship that would outlast their years in office. The two men were seemingly cut from the same cloth. Sharing an Irish heritage, the two made headlines for their rendition of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” during the famous Shamrock Summit in 1985.

Mulroney once said to The Canadian Press, “Not much happens on the international scale between Canada and the United States if there’s not a personal relationship between the president and the prime minister.” The decade of shared rule between these two ministers provided a foundation for several landmark Canada-U.S. deals including the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement.

The relationship between executives has not always run this smoothly. After the 9/11 terror attacks, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien publicly stated that U.S. foreign policy might be part of the “root causes” of terrorism, angering U.S. commentators who were critical of what they saw as Canadian “smug-moralism.” The quick-witted Pierre Trudeau, former Prime Minister and cultural icon, is reported to have said, “I’ve been called worse things by better people,” when it was reported to him that President Richard Nixon had called him an “asshole.”
In many ways, the relationship between Canada and the United States is a delicate balancing act, with each side slow to provoke the other, remaining cognisant of the need to guarantee well being and cordial relationships across and between borders, even amidst disagreements and in times of heightened tension.

Things had remained largely stable in the past decades, with relationships remaining amicable under Harper and Bush leaderships, and thereafter.

Ever since the election of Donald Trump in the United States, all eyes have been on the controversial president, with Canadian commentary spilling much ink on how Trudeau Jr. will handle his first meeting with the reality-star turned politician known for his brazen unfiltered speech and his penchant for offending.

Trudeau demonstrated his desire for diplomatic relations in late 2016, congratulating President Trump after his win, and inviting him to visit Canada at the “earliest opportunity.” It was apparent from the beginning that Trudeau had very little desire to ruffle the feathers of his neighbours to the south.

Trump, on the other hand, has become well known for his handshake technique with other politicians: rough, with a surprise “pull-and-jerk” towards him, which serves to destabilize the receiver and pull them closer to the president in a showcase of authority and dominance on Trump’s part. (See: Trump’s awkward 19 second long handshake with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the Friday before Trudeau’s meeting, after which Abe can be seen to visibly express pain and disdain with the antics of the U.S. president.)

On Monday the 13th of February 2017, Trudeau stepped out of his motorcade at the White House, prepared for the infamous handshake death-grip. Behaviour and body language analysts have commended Trudeau for holding his own. The speculatively agonizing handshake only lasted about six seconds, with Trudeau holding his balance, and placing his hand on Trump’s arm, right after Trump placed his on Trudeau’s shoulder. Trudeau was no-doubt prepared for this encounter. Many Canadians commenting on social media were convinced that his display of dominance was an assurance that he came prepared, and could hold his own in the international arena.

During the joint-press conference, the two politicians kept things friendly, cordial, and focused on the positive historical relationship shared by the two nations. “America is deeply fortunate to have a neighbour like Canada,” Trump said, “We have before us the opportunity to build even more bridges and bridges of cooperation and bridges of commerce. Both of us are committed to bringing greater prosperity and opportunity to our people.”

Justin Trudeau said the U.S. and Canada would continue to be good neighbours, but would “not agree on everything”, in reference to Donald Trump’s highly controversial executive order to ban U.S. entry from seven Muslim-majority countries. Although Mr. Trudeau did not directly criticize the president, he made it clear that Canada would continue to welcome refugees without challenging national security. He also interjected that although the U.S. and Canada had “fought and died together” and had shared histories, “there have been times where we have differed in our approaches and that’s always been done firmly and respectfully.” Trudeau was careful to appear diplomatic, and not to antagonize the U.S. president in any way.

“The last thing Canadians expect is for me to come down and lecture another country on how they choose to govern themselves,” he said to the press. “My role and responsibility is to continue to govern in such a way that reflects Canadians’ approach and be a positive example in the world.” He was sure to remark that Canada had welcomed 40,000 Syrian refugees last year, whereas the U.S. took in 12,500, less than half Canada’s figure.


One of the highlights of the meeting was the joint task force formed by the two leaders, aimed at helping women in the work force. The Canada-United States Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders was called into being, and the roundtable featured Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, an entrepreneur who holds no formal role within her father’s administration, but instead runs a line of “affordable-luxury” clothing amongst other business ventures.

The meeting culminated with a joint statement that is as normal and cordial as one can imagine, affirming the two leaders’ “longstanding commitment to close cooperation in addressing both the challenges facing our two countries and problems around the world.” Issues covered in the statement include: economics, energy, border safety, foreign affairs, and empowering women entrepreneurs and business leaders.

If one thing is clear from the meeting, it is that both leaders were well prepared by their administrations, and were eager to promote a continuing positive relationship between nations. Only one day after the meeting, White House Press Secretary and Communications Director Sean Spicer offered a major flub during a daily press briefing, referring to the Canadian PM as “Prime Minister Joe Trudeau of Canada,” which sparked an onslaught of jokes on social media, alongside photos that seemingly demonstrate Ivanka Trump swooning over the handsome Canadian PM, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Dr. Laure Paquette of Lakehead University’s Political Science Department offered the following insightful commentary on the meeting:

“Trudeau’s job was to fly under the radar, make himself agreeable, and leave the tough job on trade to Chrystia Freeland, the Minister of Global Affairs. This he appeared to do. Ivanka set up a women-and-work type roundtable, in which he participated given that the gender representation in his Cabinet got worldwide attention (unwarranted, in my opinion, but nobody listened then or now!). Trudeau flattered Trump by reminding him he’s always been an important man by giving him a picture of Pierre Trudeau getting an award in NYC from Trump in 1981. So, overall, well played but not really that meaningful.  If Trump had been smarter, he would have pressured Trudeau to spend more on defense given the NATO requirements, currently a little less than half. But it doesn’t appear any of this was raised in this get-acquainted session.”

For many Canadians, Trudeau acted amicably and diplomatically, held his own, and sought to let sleeping dogs lie as peacefully as possible. Any hard line disagreements were skirted around or not discussed publicly, and as Dr. Paquette says, Trudeau flew under the radar, and left the rest of work to his administration.

Only time will tell how the relationship between the two leaders will progress within the next few years. It is likely that Canadians can’t expect a repeat of the events of the Shamrock Summit, or that Trudeau will become Trump’s golfing buddy like in the case of Mulroney and Reagan.

What is apparent is that Trudeau will be cautious in his approach, and eager not to offend. Justin Trudeau is likely to be taking the advice of his father, who once put forth to the Press Club in Washington: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

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