The strength of the Canada-U.S. relationship was on display as U.S. President Barack Obama met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prior to a glittering state dinner in Washington.
Environmental policy, border security and trade were the big three issues on the agenda for a meeting in the morning in the Oval Office.
“Canada and the U.S. will stand side by side to confront the pressing needs that face not only our two countries, but the entire planet,” Trudeau said at a joint news conference with Obama outside the White House afterwards.
Obama said the Trudeau government has “the right values, enormous energy, enormous commitment and passion to their work and perhaps most importantly, it’s clear that they are keenly interested in engaging Canadian citizens in the process of solving problems. And I think that is how democracies are supposed to work.”
This is the first state dinner for a Canadian prime minister since then-prime minister Jean Chretien visited president Bill Clinton in 1997.
Greg Inwood, a political science professor at Ryerson University, attributed this near-20-year hiatus to the relatively strained relationship between former prime minister Stephen Harper and Obama.
“There was an erosion of the relationship during the Harper years. It was a bit of a discomfort or disconnect between the two governments over the Keystone XL pipeline project,” Inwood told Humber News on Thursday morning.
Environmental goals announced
Trudeau and Obama announced a plan to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 to 45 per cent less than 2012 levels by 2025.
Environmental historian Laurel MacDowell told Humber News that any agreement concerning the environment would necessarily be limited in scope.
“Coming out of the Paris conference, it was agreed that every country would set their own goal. If they actually have some agreement about North America and that they’re going to cooperate on some projects,” she said.
“That’s progress to some extent,” said MacDowell. “But I don’t think it’ll be anything binding. It’ll just be saying what they intend to do.”
Canada still hasn’t met its carbon reduction targets from 1997’s Kyoto Protocol, MacDowell added.
Obama and Trudeau also announced they are seeking to limit carbon emissions from ice melting in the Arctic, but MacDowell said that it might be too late for significant action.
“The problem is I don’t think they’re going to completely stop the melting … because it’s happening so fast and as a result there will be a (further) release of methane.”
Pre-clearance will streamline border crossing
In terms of borders and trade, the two leaders are expected to announce a pre-clearance program for the U.S.-Canadian border.
Toronto’s downtown Billy Bishop airport, Montreal’s central train station and Quebec City’s Jean Lesage Airport will join nine other locations where travellers can go through U.S. customs prior to leaving Canada.
Emily Gilbert, director of the University of Toronto’s Canadian Studies program, said the goal is to ease congestion.
“The trend, especially since 9/11, is trying to pull back the border clearance so it’s not all happening at the line of the border, but at more distant sites,” said Gilbert.
For goods traded across the border, this means getting security clearance prior to leaving the factory, she added.
What happens in 2017?
Questions remain about the viability of any policies discussed in the twilight of Obama’s presidency with a general election looming in November.
“There is a big question looming over this visit as to how much can actually be accomplished,” said Gilbert, noting that the Republican-controlled Congress must approve any major agreement.
“Trudeau is shortly going to face a totally different administration, whether it’s Democrat or Republican, after the next U.S. election,” Inwood said.
“From Obama’s point of view I think it’s more about legacy building … so people can look back and say during his presidency he maintained strong relationships with key allies.”