OTTAWA — The strained relationship between the U.S. and Canada is creating an appetite for Joe Biden to rekindle the cross-border “bromance” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had with Barack Obama if he secures the White House.
A lot has changed between the neighbors since January 2017. The Trump administration drove a rough-and-tumble renegotiation of NAFTA, a process that led to punishing levies on Canadian steel and aluminum, counter-tariffs from Ottawa and harsh words at the highest level.
While the tone of a Biden White House will likely be much friendlier, many Canadians are bracing for him to complicate cross-border business. Some Canadians aren't prepared to give a potential Biden administration a warm welcome just yet, fearing his protectionist agenda. But, at the leaders’ level, there would be potential for a solid rapport.
Former British Columbia premier Christy Clark said she thinks Canada is straddling the line now with the U.S. "between friend and enemy in a way that has never happened in our history.”
"If the White House goes back to really putting Canada back firmly in 'best friend' category, which is where we've been, I think that would just go a long way to making both countries a lot better," she said.
The tight personal bond between Trudeau and Obama, was, in part, formed over their shared views in areas like combating climate change and fostered over the occasional pint.
Obama remains a popular figure in Canada, and endorsed Trudeau less than a week before last year’s federal election. But Biden has also left a good impression.
Rewind to a 2016 state dinner, just for Biden: There have been few public moments between Biden and Trudeau. But they showed some chemistry back in December 2016, a few weeks after Donald Trump captured his surprise election victory, at a state dinner hosted by Trudeau in the then-vice president’s honor.
There were toasts to the tried and tested bilateral bond. The guest list for the event featured former prime ministers, including Jean Chrétien and Brian Mulroney, premiers and Cabinet ministers.
Biden’s speech highlighted his own ties to Canada — and a personal connection to Trudeau’s father.
He said his boys grew up in Delaware wanting to be Mounties and noted that his first wife’s family was from Toronto. He spoke of exchanges he had in the 1970s, when he was a young politician, with Trudeau’s father Pierre, who was Canada’s prime minister at the time.
“I lost my part of my family,” Biden told the audience in the Sir John A. Macdonald building at the foot of Parliament Hill. “And your dad not only was decent and honorable, but he reached out. He reached out and commiserated with me about the loss of my wife and daughter.”
Biden added: “I watched your father, I watched everything he did. He was a man of great integrity.”
In his speech, Biden also acknowledged their common friend. “You and Barack and your bromance that you had going ... ” he joked at one point.
Common policy ground: U.S.-Canada ties under a Biden presidency would have the potential to bloom thanks to the leaders’ shared commitments to the environment and a transition away from fossil fuels, an issue that makes conservatives on both sides of the border bristle.
On the second day of his 2016 visit, Biden attended a round table with Indigenous leaders and premiers where they talked at length about climate change — “the most consequential issue of our generation,” he said — and clean growth.
“There was a very strong connection between Trudeau and Biden, as I remember it,” former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne, who sat beside Biden at the meeting, said in an interview. “It was clear Vice President Biden had a warm spot for Canada.”
Wynne predicted Trudeau’s vision for tackling climate change could get boosted by a Biden presidency and could embolden Canada to keep moving on the issue without apology.
She said it would also make things harder for leaders like Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Ontario Premier Doug Ford to insist Canada stay tied to fossil fuels if the U.S. is once again moving to curb them. “I've got my fingers crossed for all sorts of reasons — but that's, that's certainly a major one,” Wynne said.
Clark, the former B.C. premier, who was also at the roundtable, said that well-executed policy under a Biden administration around carbon pricing across the U.S. could provide real encouragement for Canada to do a better job on the issue.
“We’ve got lots of we got lots of talk and bluster around it, but it really hasn't happened in Canada,” Clark said.
The state dinner backstory: Bruce Heyman, the U.S. ambassador to Canada in 2016, said the Trudeau government really wanted to host a state dinner for Obama in June of that year. Obama was due in Ottawa at that time for the “Three Amigos” summit with Mexico’s president.
Heyman said the first invitation came from the Canadian side that spring, but the event just didn’t materialize. Biden had missed Obama’s state dinner in Washington for Trudeau.
“If Joe Biden becomes president, that may have been the smartest investment the Canadian government made in that transition period,” Heyman said in an interview.
The former envoy, however, acknowledged the landscape has changed since the dinner. He argued it’s unlikely the relationship would magically go back to where it was and that re-engagement would have to account for the challenges of the day, like Covid-19.
Clark recalled that, at the time, she thought the trip must have been “very awkward” for Biden so soon after his party’s election defeat.
“Obviously, the prime minister's intention was to be speaking to someone who was going to be incredibly influential with the new Democratic president of the United States, but it didn't turn out that way,” she said.
Veteran Liberal MP Wayne Easter said in an interview that it is unlikely anyone organizing the dinner was thinking Biden would become a candidate for the Democratic Party or the next president.
“I think it was, to a certain extent, a meeting of somewhat like minds, especially on the importance of our countries in global affairs and an ongoing kind of friendship,” said Easter, who’s co-chair of the Canada-United States Inter-Parliamentary Group. “I think what made the Biden dinner in Canada, perhaps even more pertinent, was kind of the shock of the Trump election.”
What’s next: A senior Canadian government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter, said there’s no question the Liberals and Democrats share some ideological similarities. But they stressed the government is in no way rooting for Biden and that Canada will work with whomever is elected by Americans.
The person also said if Biden wins the presidency, they intend to go back and learn more about that dinner.
Lauren Gardner contributed to this report.