What’s bothering America’s friendliest neighbour?


MARCH 24, 2023

President Joe Biden has landed in Canada for a long-awaited official foray north. America’s neighbour is often the first foreign port of call for a new US president, a tradition delayed this time in part because of the Covid pandemic.

Mr. Biden, who will be joined by First Lady Jill Biden, will meet Canadian officials, give a speech to parliament and sit down with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the two-day bilateral visit.

The trip offers an opportunity for Mr Biden to “reaffirm the importance of the relationship and Canada’s status as an ally and an economic partner”, said Laura Dawson of the Future Borders Coalition.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Trudeau speak frequently, but not having a presidential visit on the agenda “was looking bad”, said Christopher Sands, director of the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute in Washington DC.

“The US, as usual, pays attention to the noisy problems and not to the good Canadians because they don’t make trouble,” he said.

Still, a range of potentially thorny bilateral and international issues are on the agenda, from continental defence to Haiti, migration and trade.

Tackling migration

Both leaders have made clear that a surge of asylum seekers at the US-Canada border is a major concern.

Canada has seen a record number of asylum seekers crossing in recent months at Roxham Road, an unofficial crossing between New York state and the province of Quebec. The US side has also seen a jump in migrant crossings there from Canada.

Mr. Trudeau is under pressure at home to stem the flow.

The prime minister has asked to renegotiate the decades-old Safe Third Country Agreement, a pact between the two countries in place since 2004 that requires refugee claimants to request protection in the first “safe” country they reach.

There is a loophole in that agreement that allows migrants to claim asylum by crossing at places like Roxham Road.

Asylum seekers board a bus after crossing into Canada from Roxham Road in Champlain New York. – Reuters

It was reported on Thursday that the two countries had struck a deal on modifications to the agreement – a potentially significant announcement to come out of the meeting.

Meanwhile, Mr Biden is facing his own migrant crisis on the southern US border.

Ms. Dawson said she “would like to see Canada making a commitment to work with the United States, Central America and Mexico, on managing the flows of refugees and asylum seekers in our region”.

Help for Haiti

On that same theme, the leaders will discuss how to stabilize the situation in Haiti, where the economy is in crisis and gang violence and kidnappings have risen sharply.

Haiti’s government and UN officials have called for an international force to support Haitian police.

And Mr. Biden is expected to ramp up pressure for Canada to take a leadership role in helping restore order to the Caribbean nation.

So far, Mr. Trudeau has resisted such calls, saying he remains focused on working closely with Haitians. “Outside intervention, as we’ve done in the past, hasn’t worked to create long-term stability for Haiti,” he said last week.

Top military brass have also expressed caution, warning that the Canadian armed forces may already be spread thin because of military assistance to Ukraine.

Electric vehicles, clean energy and trade wars

One of Mr Biden’s signature pieces of legislation came close to sparking a trade war with Canada last year.

The friction point was in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), a sweeping climate, tax and healthcare package passed by Congress last summer.

It proposed tax credits for electric vehicles that would have favored US car makers. Canada’s automotive industry – significant in its own right – feared the IRA could kneecap its domestic electric vehicle aspirations.

Trouble was averted after aggressive lobbying by Canada, including a direct appeal by the prime minister to the president. A last-minute change expanded those tax incentives to vehicles produced in all of North America.

Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, a Canadian industry group, said the near-miss was a reminder of the limits of the relationship.

“We need to not freak out when we’re not in,” he said. “But we also need to not relax and take for granted that, while they’re coming up with their industrial policy, or their climate policy, that they’re thinking about us.”

A push for critical minerals

An electric vehicle boom will have to be fuelled by critical minerals – and Canada has touted itself as major producer of nickel, potash, aluminium, and uranium.

Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal government has committed C$3.8bn ($2.8bn; £2.3bn) for the strategic development of the sector and domestic supply chains.

But the Americans will be looking to see if Canada will “put its money where its mouth is” when it comes to critical minerals, said Scotty Greenwood, CEO of the Canadian American Business Council.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with auto assembly workers. Reuters

It wants Canada to show that it’s moving quickly on the permitting of the valuable resources, and speeding up the consultation process.

“Do you say all the right things, but it still takes 20 years to build anything?” Ms. Greenwood said.

Strengthening Arctic security

The rise of China and Russia’s war in Ukraine will be much discussed during the visit.

Those geopolitical challenges highlight the importance of the long security partnership between the two nations, and Norad (the North American Aerospace Defense Command) in particular.

That partnership was called into action earlier this year to track the Chinese spy balloon, first spotted in Alaska before it traversed across parts of Canada and the US, and was ultimately shot down off the US Atlantic coast.

That incident – and the successful targeting of subsequent airborne objects – was “a good news story” for Norad, showing seamless co-operation between the US and Canada, said Heather Exner-Pirot, a senior fellow with Canada’s Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also raised concerns over vulnerabilities in Arctic security.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Trudeau agree on the importance of bolstering defence and Arctic security but Ms Exner-Pirot said the Americans will likely put “a little bit of pressure” on Canada to do more – and faster – when it comes to modernizing its continental defence capabilities.

Courtesy/Source: BBC News