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Trudeau speaking with Barack Obama, November 2015. By Pete Souza, Public Domain.

The Public Won't Be Served at Obama's State Dinner for Trudeau

What can we expect out of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's two-day visit to Washington, DC this week?

First of all, this is what isn't likely to be on the agenda:

  • a shared commitment to a 100 per cent clean energy economy by 2050, including a ban on fracking and on exploration for fossil fuels in the Arctic Ocean
  • an abrogation or renegotiation of NAFTA and in particular its Chapter 11 provision that has allowed Calgary-based TransCanada to challenge the United States over its rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline
  • a rejection of the investor-state dispute settlement provision in the yet-to-be-ratified trade deals both countries are pursuing with the European Union, which provide a special court for transnational corporations to sue democratically-elected governments
  • an affirmation of the United Nations-recognized right to water and sanitation (in support of Indigenous peoples in both countries, and the people of Flint and Detroit, Michigan)
  • a joint declaration of the Great Lakes as a commons, public trust and protected bio-region (including an agreement to prohibit nuclear waste dumps on the shores of our shared waters, strict rules on ballast, and more)
  • an endorsement of country-of-origin labelling rules that respect that people have a right to know where and under what conditions their food was produced.

Instead, rather more modestly, the Globe and Mail reports that US State Department special envoy on climate change Todd Stern "said the two leaders will unveil environmental initiatives to protect the Arctic, set fuel and emission standards for heavy vehicles and reduce methane gas and so-called black carbon from burning fossil fuels." Announcements might also include "border-security measures such as U.S. Customs preclearance for manufacturing plants in Canada" and possibly a process for a new softwood lumber deal. And National Security Council Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs Mark Feierstein says the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be "obviously very, very high on the agenda".

Last week, the Globe and Mail reported on Canada's new ambassador to the United States and his thoughts on this visit. Ambassador David MacNaughton commented:

  • "[Regulations on methane gas emissions are] under discussion and I think we are making real progress."
  • "We want to give a shot in the arm to [the harmonization of environmental and food standards]. Streamlining regulatory standards is not just good for business but it’s good for consumers. There is a real savings to be had in terms of people who are going to consume the goods."
  • “We are working hard [on an exit/entry system that will track the movement of everyone who leaves the US or Canada with the information available to authorities in both countries] and hopefully [will] be able to say something about this next week, but we are not quite there."
  • “Hopefully between now and October [when the softwood lumber deal between the two countries expires], we can find a way to resolve this in an amicable way, which is good for both Canada and the United States. We are not there yet. We are not going to be there next week but hopefully we can come to an agreement as to how we will go at this over the next several months. If it ends up that everyone agrees that special envoys [be appointed to work on this], then so be it."
  • "The transportation sector, whether it be heavy vehicles including tractors on farms and transportation by truck, these areas are ones where there is some low-hanging fruit. On the electric vehicle side, that has potential and there are such technological innovations, particularly in terms of batteries." columnist Duncan Cameron has warned, "The usual course for whoever has formed government in Ottawa has been to allow the U.S. to set the economic agenda for both governments. If the history of Canadian-American relations means anything, Canadians can expect the Obama government to have a plan for the U.S. economy that includes Canadian resources such as water." And he adds, "Press leaks suggest Obama wants a continental environment accord as part of his legacy. The White House plans to get what it needs from Ottawa this coming week. [Preeminent political scientist] Stephen Clarkson would have predicted as much."

With that caution, we will also want to keep in mind Feierstein's comment that the TPP will be high on the agenda.

When Trudeau and Obama met at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Manila in Nov. 2015, Obama stated, "We are both soon to be signatories to the TPP agreement [in Feb. 2016]. That’s another area we can continue to have important discussions. I know Justin has to agree with what’s happened, but we think that after that process has taken place, Canada, the United States and the other countries that are here can establish the high-standards agreement that protects labour, protects the environment, protects the kind of high value-added goods and services that we both excel in."

While Trudeau isn't expected to publicly concede on the TPP tomorrow, his government has framed the ratification of the TPP as a yes or no proposition, without any room for modification or amendments to the 12-country agreement (although his government just agreed to changes to the 'free trade' agreement with the 28-country European Union almost two years after talks on it had been concluded).

We also need to keep in mind federal natural resources minister Jim Carr's recent statement that Canada, the United States and Mexico are making "strides" towards a continental energy strategy. Author Gordon Laxer comments, "That’s news to Canadians. What strides and to what end? Would a continental energy strategy help Canada meet its ambitious Paris climate promises? Will it lock Canadians into their traditional role as diggers and exporters of carbon fuels?" That issue is expected to be on the agenda when Trudeau and Obama next meet – this time along with Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto – at some point in May somewhere in Canada.

© 2021 Council of Canadians
Brent Patterson

Brent Patterson

Brent Patterson is the executive director of Peace Brigades International-Canada. He supported cross-country activism at the Council of Canadians for almost 20 years. Brent has a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Saskatchewan and an M.A. in International Relations from York University. He lives in Ottawa on the traditional, unceded, and unsurrendered territories of the Algonquin nation.

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