US & Canada

Trudeau meets Trump: A diplomatic balancing act

Media captionJustin Trudeau was asked to comment on Donald Trump's migrant ban.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a fine line to walk on Monday and came through with his best diplomatic balancing act.

Mr Trudeau headed to Washington hoping to secure reassurances that President Donald Trump valued the Canada-US relationship, especially its economic ties.

The prime minister can travel back to Ottawa with Mr Trump on the record as calling the trade relationship between the two nations "outstanding" and only in need of a "tweaking".

What those tweaks might entail is still to be revealed, but you could almost hear anxious Canadian businesspeople breathing a sigh of relief.

Trade relations with the US are crucial for Canada. More than 75% of its exports head south of the border, while 18% of US exports are sent north.

But Mr Trudeau and his ministers have repeatedly hammered home other statistics over the past few weeks that underscore the importance of Canada to American commerce.

Nearly nine million US jobs depend on trade and investment from Canada, while Canada is the top customer for 35 US states.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption US President Donald Trump (L) holds a news conference Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Mr Trump also made it clear he views economic relations with Mexico in a very different light than those with Canada. Mexico is the third partner with Canada and the US in the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"It's a much less severe situation than what's taking place on the southern border," the president said in reference to Canada-US trade during the joint news conference with Mr Trudeau at the White House.

This first face-to-face meeting also offered a clue at how far Mr Trudeau was willing to go preserve those vital trade ties.

He refused to bite when the press repeatedly baited him to criticise his host on thorny issues like immigration, though many of his own policies stand as a reproach to those of the new US president's.

Mr Trudeau is a self-described feminist who calls himself "extremely free trade" and has made Canada's openness to immigration, diversity, and refugees part of the country's - and his own - brand.

Media captionA brief look at the long friendship between the United States and Canada

But on Monday his message was that "the last thing Canadians expect is for me to come down and lecture another country on how they chose to govern themselves".

In fact, Mr Trudeau and Liberal MPs have been disciplined in their refusal to criticise Mr Trump over the past few months.

The most pointed they got was when the prime minister tweeted out a welcome to refugees just as the US was implementing the temporary ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Opposition Conservative leader Rona Ambrose said that discipline is a smart move given how paramount relations with the US are to Canada.

"This is a delicate situation here. I don't think it would help anyone in this country if the prime minister went to the US and started a fight," she told reporters in Ottawa.

Another clue as to just how much significance Ottawa has placed on this first face-to-face meeting with the new American administration was the prime minister's entourage.

Mr Trudeau brought five ministers with him to Washington, a who's who of Canada's top Cabinet members, as well as his most trusted senior aides.

The two world leaders worked hard to play up the similarities in their first meeting and beyond that key trade assurance, the Canadian delegation will leave Washington having secured a few other commitments from the US.

Those include commitments to collaborate on improving clean energy and enhancing efficiency at border crossings, to tackle opioid trafficking, and the creation of a Canada-US council geared towards promoting women-owned enterprises.

More on this story