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Biden to highlight US-Canadian unity in first presidential trip to Ottawa

<i>Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters</i><br/>President Joe Biden
Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters
President Joe Biden

By Sam Fossum and Phil Mattingly, CNN

President Joe Biden will make a long-awaited trip to America’s northern neighbor Thursday evening, a 24-hour whirlwind visit where he will press to elevate a concerted effort to repair a bilateral relationship as the two nations confront growing geopolitical challenges.

Despite the brief nature of the trip, White House officials say the crowded agenda underscores the relationship’s importance — and the substantial shift away from the fractures that developed during former President Donald Trump’s time in office. Still, they acknowledge there are a series of economic, trade and immigration challenges that must be navigated between the two governments.

Biden’s visit includes a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, an address to the nation’s parliament in Ottawa, and a cozy reception at an elaborate gala dinner. For Biden, who last traveled to Ottawa shortly after Trump was elected in 2016, the visit will also mark a moment to underscore close ties and the critical role Canada has played in the Western alliance that has supported Ukraine since Russia’s invasion more than a year ago.

“This visit is about taking stock of what we’ve done, where we are, and what we need to prioritize for the future,” said White House National Security Council strategic communications coordinator John Kirby.

The two leaders and political allies are expected to discuss North American supply chains and critical minerals, climate change, the opioid crisis and critical defense cooperation — including efforts to modernize the North American Aerospace Defense Command. And while no major breakthroughs are expected, thornier issues like the deteriorating situation in Haiti, immigration and trade are also expected to be on the agenda.

“We’re going to talk about our two democracies stepping up to meet the challenges of our time. That includes taking concrete steps to increase defense spending, driving a global race to the top on clean energy, and building prosperous and inclusive economies,” Kirby told reporters on Wednesday.

Biden will “reaffirm the United States’ commitment to the US-Canada partnership and promote our shared security, shared prosperity, and shared values,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre wrote in a statement announcing the trip earlier this month.

The two men are also expected to discuss Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Trudeau, the longest-serving leader in the G7, has been an ally to Biden in providing military and financial assistance to the country during the Kremlin’s invasion.

“This is a meaningful visit. Canada is one of the United States’ closest allies and friends and has been now for more than 150 years,” Kirby added.

Vincent Rigby, a former national security and intelligence adviser to Trudeau and current senior adviser at CSIS, told CNN that as Biden travels to Ottawa with “the world on his mind,” the current geopolitical environment in the Indo-Pacific and Eastern Europe means that Canadian security contributions will be a key topic in Friday’s bilateral meeting.

“I think the big question is going to be, OK, Canada, where do you stand on all this? And I would suggest that Canada has been struggling to match some of its allies over the last number of years in responding to this unstable security environment. So it will probably be the elephant in the room to a certain extent,” he told CNN.

Rigby noted that while efforts to increase Canadian defense spending, modernize NORAD or contain China are not new, it’s an issue that has garnered a greater public profile the last few months following the Chinese spy balloon’s incursion into North American airspace and recent allegations about Beijing attempting to interfere in Canadian elections.

While Canada has announced $3.8 billion in spending to help upgrade NORAD and has recently purchased F-35s, Canada’s overall percentage of GDP spent on defense remains well below the 2% asked of NATO members.

“I think that the prime minister needs to reassure the president that he’s going to do what’s necessary to have a military in Canada that’s ready to respond to these kinds of threats, particularly on the international stage,” Rigby added. “This isn’t just about blindly following the United States’ lead. It’s about doing what’s right for Canada and Canada’s national interest.”

Preparations underway

Preparations for the president’s visit were already well-underway on Wednesday with American and Canadian flags draped along Wellington Street across the way from the Parliament complex, and Canadian security services — buttressed by police units from neighboring cities like Toronto — conducting practice runs for expected motorcade routes.

Biden’s travel agenda will kick into gear from the moment he lands at Ottawa International Airport on Thursday night, when he will hold a bilateral meeting with the governor general of Canada — the country’s apolitical and ceremonial head of state — followed by a meet and greet at Trudeau’s official residence.

On Friday, Biden makes the short trip from his hotel to Parliament Hill where will have a bilateral with Trudeau, an expanded meeting with their respective staff, and then Biden’s address to Parliament. The two leaders will then hold a joint news conference in the afternoon before Friday evening’s dinner ahead of a late evening flight back to the US.

First lady Dr. Jill Biden — who is accompanying her husband in Ottawa — will also take part in additional events with Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, the prime minister’s wife.

Complicated discussions continue

Despite being fellow liberals and political allies who are closely aligned on many issues, Prime Minister Trudeau and President Biden have had their share of disagreements. Early on in Biden’s administration, Trudeau expressed disappointment over the president’s unwillingness to back off his decision to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline and the Canadians have previously raised concerns over the impact of “Buy American” measures on trade between the two countries.

And while Friday’s meetings will heavily feature areas of cooperation between the two countries, there will also be discussions on more complicated issues like immigration, trade and Haiti.

As both leaders face an influx of migrants and mounting political pressure, they will be pressed to finalize changes to the Safe Third Country Agreement. Trudeau has been facing blowback domestically over hundreds of migrants crossing Roxham Road, a remote street that connects Champlain, New York, with Hemmingford, Quebec.

“The only way to effectively shut down, not just Roxham Road but the entire border, to these irregular crossings is to renegotiate the Safe Third Country Agreement,” Trudeau said at a news conference last month, pointing to the thousands of kilometers of shared unguarded border between the US and Canada and adding that people will cross elsewhere even if the Roxham Road access point is closed.

Signed in 2002, the agreement applies to people transiting through a country where they could have claimed asylum because it’s deemed safe. It means that anyone entering a land port of entry could be ineligible to make a claim and therefore returned to the US. But Roxham Road is not an official crossing, meaning that people who transit there could still seek protections in Canada even though they passed through the US.

Biden and Trudeau have previously touted their relationship on a slew of issues, including in accepting refugees, and CNN reported earlier this month that it’s unlikely the latest migration trend along the northern border will damage that bond.

Kirby, a top White House official, said Wednesday the US is “well aware” of Canadian concerns regarding migration and that he has “no doubt” the two leaders will discuss it.

“We’ll be talking about issues of migration, which affects us both. There are more people on the move in this hemisphere than there have been since World War Two and that affects both our countries,” he said.

Fueling the increase in immigration this year and also expected to be brought up in Friday’s talks are discussions on the ongoing crisis in Haiti where the government is edging closer to becoming a failed state as criminal gangs in the capital become increasingly violent and the country faces interlocking health, energy and security crises.

United Nations officials are warning that the situation “continues to spiral out of control,” and in the first two weeks of March, the gang violence has killed 208 people, injured 164 others and led to 101 kidnappings, according to the UN. Last year there were 2,183 homicides and 1,359 kidnappings in Haiti, which nearly doubles the statistics from the previous year, according to the UN.

Late last year the United States drafted a UN Security Council resolution, following calls from the Haitian government for outside intervention, to support the deployment of a rapid action force to Haiti to help the government’s national police wrest back control of the crisis-ridden country.

While the US has no plans to lead such a force, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in January that Canada had “expressed interest in taking on a leadership role.” Although Kirby on Wednesday said that they’re not yet at a point where all the players involved can make any definitive decisions and that the two leaders will continue their discussions.

“We have continued to stand with the people of Haiti, and we will continue to. Obviously, this current situation is heart wrenching and we need to continue to be there for the people of Haiti. But we need to make sure that the solutions are driven by the people of Haiti themselves,” Trudeau said in January, pointing to the military and financial support Canada and the US have already provided.

Part of the calculus for Canada, according to Rigby, is that any sort of military intervention could potentially become a “quagmire” and would require distinct objectives and goals. But also, as Canada’s top general has publicly acknowledged, the Canadian armed forces may lack the capacity to lead such a mission.

“It might be a bridge too far for them to go into Haiti. So that’s why I think you’re seeing a little bit of reluctance on the part of the Canadian government to engage on Haiti as much as I think they’d like to help,” Rigby told CNN.

Long relationship

American presidents typically visit Canada as one of their first trips abroad, but the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine at the beginning of Biden’s administration complicated matters and delayed Biden’s first visit North. Instead, the newly minted US president in early 2021 opted for his first phone call and virtual bilateral meeting to be with Trudeau.

“When we work together, as the closest of friends should, we only make each other stronger,” Biden said at the time.

Since then, the Bidens have hosted the Trudeaus at the White House and the two men have met repeatedly in other international fora and on the sidelines of other multilateral settings, including most recently in January at a summit of North American leaders.

Biden and Trudeau have known each other for years and describe their relationship as a close one that has only grown more critical in the year since Russia’s invasion.

One of Biden’s final trips as vice president was to attend a state dinner held in his honor in Ottawa; during his toast, Biden recounted the call he received from Trudeau’s father Pierre — then serving as prime minister — when his first wife and daughter died in a car accident.

It’s a personal element that helped animate a level of warmth Biden attempted to convey at the time despite the trepidation among US allies about what the next administration would mean for relations.

“The friendship between us is absolutely critical to the United States, our well-being, our security, our sense of ourselves,” Biden said at the time.

But he also implicitly framed what would become a turbulent four years ahead — and pointed directly to the younger Trudeau as someone who would become a critical player during that period.

“The world’s going to spend a lot of time looking to you, Mr. Prime Minister, as we see more and more challenges to the liberal international order than any time since the end of World War II,” Biden told Trudeau at the time.

Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump visited Canada only once for a Group of 7 summit in Quebec. The two leader’s bad blood was on full display afterward when Trump revoked his signature from a joint statement and called Trudeau “very dishonest and weak” on Twitter.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this report.

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