WASHINGTON – A warm moment in Canada-U.S. relations unfolded Thursday at the White House, marked by small talk, big fanfare and President Barack Obama promising to address Canada’s Parliament before he leaves office.
The sunny spring day began on the White House lawn with an elaborate bit of bilateral cinematography: a military brass band, a cannon salute and hundreds of flag-waving onlookers greeting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in town for the first state dinner involving a Canadian in 19 years.
The leaders greeted members of the crowd, many of them clutching miniature Canadian and U.S. flags, along the rope line while their wives chatted nearby.
At a separate event, Michelle Obama introduced her counterpart Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau as her “soulmate.” Gregoire-Trudeau returned the favour as the two were walking away: Obama tripped on a heel and Sophie helped break her fall.
During the official welcome, a relaxed, wisecracking Obama make some jokes about American hockey dominance while noting how long it had been since a similar Canada-U.S. event.
“(First) in nearly 20 years. About time, eh?” Obama said.
“We have a common outlook on the world, and I have to say I have never seen so many Americans excited about the visit of a Canadian prime minister.”
Indeed, the two leaders went out of their way to project amity: Trudeau described the president as “My friend” and “Barack.” Obama said people were inspired by his message of hope and change. He predicted Trudeau would do a great job and rattled off a laundry list of issues where they were of like minds.
“From my perspective,” Obama mused, “what’s not to like?”
The substance of the visit contained no major surprises, but did include several expected policy announcements on a range of issues, including one that could lead to major changes at the border.
They agreed to move forward with a customs pre-clearance experiment that could revolutionize the way Canadians and Americans enter each other’s country. It would apply the model used at some airports to other modes of transportation, allowing travellers to clear customs at train stations in Montreal and Vancouver as part of a pilot project.
They agreed to curb methane emissions as part of a wide-ranging plan on climate change and Arctic protection. And they expressed optimism that a compromise could soon stave off fresh battles in the ongoing softwood lumber war.
The biggest news out of the event — red meat to the U.S. media — was an extended presidential riff on the rise of Donald Trump. But there were some cheeky Trudeau headlines as well; a Washington Post item referring to a new “bromance,” while New York magazine heralded the “Historical Hotness Summit.”
Trudeau steered clear of discussing the U.S. election, demurring when American reporters tried to draw him into commenting on the Republican race.
Obama showed no such compunction, ridiculing Republicans while also reprising Trudeau’s message from the night before: that the solution to the challenges of globalization is openness, not isolation — a jab at the election talk of expelling Mexican migrants, banning Muslim travel and ripping up trade deals.
Trudeau later received extended applause by a crowd at the State Department, where before lunch Secretary of State John Kerry saluted him for bringing in 25,000 refugees and leading the charge on climate change.
He was also received by lawmakers from both parties during meetings on Capitol Hill — although the Senate leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, had to pull out of the meeting because of an unspecified scheduling conflict.
Trudeau disclosed that Obama and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto had agreed to visit Canada for a North American summit cancelled last year by Stephen Harper, amid frustration over the stalled Keystone XL pipeline.
In June, Obama will address Parliament in the first such event featuring a president since Bill Clinton. His presence on Parliament Hill will close the loop on his presidency, which was in its early days when he travelled to Ottawa on his first foreign trip in February 2009.
Obama joked that while his first foreign trip was marked by snow and cold, Trudeau got 27 C weather and a sunny day — conditions that even showcased the U.S. capital’s famous cherry blossoms.
People — many of them with a personal connection to Canada, and an admitted fascination with the new prime minister — were invited by the White House to watch the morning’s ceremony.
Liz Siddle, an expat who’s lived in Washington for years, said the new Canadian leader is a frequent topic of conversation among her U.S. colleagues.
“He comes up all the time,” said Siddle, showing her colours with a red Canadian scarf. “As soon as he was elected, Americans were saying, ‘Oh, your new PM’ — I don’t think they knew who the old PM was.”
Brian Tham, another Canadian expat, was wearing a Team Canada hockey jersey.
“It comes up in a way that it never did under the Harper government,” Tham said.
“Nobody talked about Stephen Harper in D.C., in his 10 years. As soon as (Trudeau) was elected, he was part of the conversation. People talk, ‘Hey, what do you think of the new (PM)?’ Obviously he’s very good-looking, he’s very exciting, he’s very progressive. And that plays really well in D.C.”
Later Thursday, the Trudeaus were attending a state dinner in the White House’s East Room, where Pierre Trudeau was serenaded by Robert Goulet at an after-party for his own first state dinner here in 1969.
The guest list included a mix of politicians, the politically connected, figures from business and the arts, and celebrities like NHL commissioner Gary Bettman; actors Ryan Reynolds, Michael J. Fox, Mike Myers and Sandra Oh; and impresario Lorne Michaels.
The three-day trip ends Friday with a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, a speech, and a town hall-type forum with university students.