Kind words, tough talk: What to expect when President Joe Biden comes to Ottawa

When American presidents visit Canada, there's a recurring pattern in their oratory. They deliver spoonfuls of sugar — sweet, syrupy odes to one of the happier nation-to-nation relationships in a troubled world. Then comes the dose of medicine — a shot of tough love along with the sucrose in the form of a request for Canada to do more in the world.

The bilateral relationship is in a good place — but there are irritants on both sides


When American presidents visit Canada, there's a recurring pattern to their oratory. They deliver spoonfuls of sugar — sweet, syrupy odes to one of the happier nation-to-nation relationships in a troubled world.

Then comes the dose of medicine — a shot of tough love along with the sucrose in the form of a request for Canada to do more in the world.

Take, for example, that celebrated speech by John F. Kennedy, quoted so often by politicians when they cross the border. "Geography has made us neighbours," Kennedy said. "History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies."

Less well remembered is another part of that speech — the part where President Kennedy publicly arm-twisted a reluctant Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to step up his involvement in the hemisphere and join the fledgling Organization of American States (OAS). Kennedy also urged a NATO revamp.

"To be sure, it would mean an added responsibility," Kennedy told Parliament in May 1961, speaking of the OAS. "But yours is not a nation that shrinks from responsibility."

President Barack Obama did the same thing. His 2016 address to Parliament triggered such a sugar high that by the time he was finished, elected Canadian politicians were on their feet chanting, "Four more years!"

MPs were cheering even as Obama (gently, politely) insinuated that Canada had been something of a deadbeat when it comes to spending on international security.

Drowning in applause, Obama said the world needed more Canada. "NATO needs more Canada," he said. "We need you."

Which brings us to this week. And to Joe Biden's visit, which starts Thursday.

For the first time in decades, a U.S. president will stay overnight in Canada during a bilateral visit. He'll finish with a speech to Parliament on Friday.

Relations between the two countries are in a relatively good place. A potentially damaging spat over electric vehicles was resolved, as was a smaller tiff over the NEXUS trusted-travel program, while perennial irritants persist over dairy and lumber.

Guns, jets and satellites

But there's that recurring U.S. plea on international issues that can be summed up in a sentence: Do more, please, and do it faster. Specifically on migration, Haiti and defence spending.

U.S. officials have told their Canadian counterparts they appreciate recent increases that will see Canada's defence spending grow by $15 billion, or 40 per cent, within several years. They've saluted Canada's promises to buy F-35 jets and modernize NORAD.

They've also urged the Canadians to speed up the timetable. Ottawa has projected a 20-year program to refurbish NORAD. The Americans want it done sooner.

"We're facing 21st-century threats. And we need 21st-century responses. And 21st-century responses cost money," U.S. Ambassador David Cohen told CBC's Rosemary Barton Live last weekend.

A radar dome is illuminated at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Point Barrow Long Range Radar Site, north of the northernmost town in the United States in Utqiagvik, Alaska, on February 3, 2023.

One area where Ottawa could speed up NORAD modernization is in replacing satellites that cover the Arctic. They're due to run out of serviceable life in 2026 and new ones aren't expected to enter service until the early 2030s.

Defence Minister Anita Anand cautioned Tuesday that while she's always pushing for faster investments, there are logistical challenges involved in installing new technology.

"This is a process and it will take time," she said.

Help for Haiti

The Miami Herald reports the U.S. is pressing Canada to make a decision on whether to lead a multinational stabilization force after months of uncertainty. The administration is reportedly hoping for an answer while Biden is in Ottawa.

The U.S. is pushing Canada on this issue for several reasons, said a former State Department official.

Benjamin Gedan said Haiti is teetering into multiple crises: a possible collapse of the state, authoritarian politics, a delayed election, widespread violence and a humanitarian disaster driving migration.

He said the U.S. needs help managing a crisis close to home, to free it up to deal with more distant geopolitical challenges, like Ukraine.

Besides, he said, the U.S. isn't really trusted in Haiti because of its past invasion and occupation there. Neither is the United Nations, given its role in a cholera outbreak and sex-abuse scandal there.

A child gestures as he looks for cover after leaving school amid gang violence in Port-au-Prince, Haiti March 3, 2023.

"There's really not a lot of countries — or any — willing to raise their hand [for this mission]," Gedan, now director of the Latin America project at Washington's Wilson Center think-tank, told the Canusa Street podcast.

"Which is, again, why the United States keeps turning to Canada."

Canada doesn't sound keen on leading a force.

The Trudeau government is pointedly drawing attention to other things countries can do to help Haiti — like training its police and sanctioning the wealthy Haitians funding street gangs.

"Outside intervention, as we've done in the past, hasn't worked to create long-term stability for Haiti," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said recently.

Migrants and borders

Haiti is connected to another bilateral flashpoint: migration.

In an agreement last year involving almost two dozen countries, Canada committed to playing a leading role in Haitian and francophone migrant resettlement.

That was before Quebec Premier François Legault demanded that Ottawa put a halt to irregular migration into his province and start busing asylum-seekers elsewhere.

One potential outcome of the Biden-Trudeau summit under discussion involves establishing additional legal pathways for Haitians to request asylum.

This is the sort of thing the U.S. focuses on when Canadian politicians like Trudeau and Legault talk about renegotiating a Canada-U.S. border deal.

Migrants seen carrying suitcases in the snow.

Canada wants the two-decade-old Safe Third Country Agreement extended across the entire border, so that migrants who cross between regular checkpoints can be turned back to the U.S.

But the U.S. is already trending toward receiving three million migrants this year amid the largest global wave of asylum-seekers since the Second World War.

The Americans have made it abundantly clear that their priority is managing the massive international movement of people — not just closing down the Roxham Road crossing in Quebec.

If Biden says anything this week to move Safe Third Country talks forward, Ottawa will see any new momentum as progress.

Cohen told CBC that if the countries do revamp the Safe Third Country deal, it'll be as part of a deeper discussion. "If you are thoughtful about these issues, you understand that you must deal with the underlying causes of irregular migration," he said.

Canada, could, as part of this conversation, point out that it's been accepting more refugees than the U.S., even under Biden, and that a relatively modest percentage of the U.S. population was born abroad.

The beef with Buy American

Canada has its gripes, too.

It's unhappy with how the Biden administration keeps pushing its Buy American policies. In Biden's most recent State of the Union address, mentions of Buy American drew rare applause from both parties.

Canadian officials aren't sure the president's latest Buy American plan actually does much damage based on its fine print. The plan doesn't apply to federal, military or state-level procurement by state agencies that signed a global treaty. It also excludes most products.

The head of Canada's business lobby says he's still hoping to hear reassurances from Biden like the ones he offered during the electric vehicle spat, which was resolved.

"Where there's a will, there's a way," said Goldy Hyder, president of the Business Council of Canada.

"What we need from [U.S.] leadership is a signal that says, 'Yes, Canada, you are special. We are going to do more with you than we might do with someone else.' That alone would help build confidence for investment in Canada."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, with Li-Cycle President and CEO Ajay Kochnar and Executive Chairman Tim Johnston, tour the lithium-ion battery recycling firm Li-Cycle in Kingston, Ontario on March 7, 2023.

The blunt truth about Biden's visit, said Maryscott Greenwood, the Washington-based head of the Canadian American Business Council, is that it's just not that big a deal in the States.

In the days before the trip, Greenwood said, she sat for an interview with a U.S. TV network. She asked when it might air. Maybe never, she was told — not if Donald Trump gets indicted or the banking crisis worsens.

Greenwood compared the U.S. to a firefighter racing from one burning building to another. Biden has to navigate multiple crises at home and abroad, she said, from migration to Russia's war on Ukraine to China's sabre-rattling over Taiwan. Closer to home, U.S. relations with Mexico's president are also taking a nasty inflammatory turn.

'You have to bring something relevant'

She said Canada could have more influence in the U.S. if it's seen as a potential solution to problems. For example, she said, Canada's push to foster critical minerals mining could boost its clout with a Biden administration obsessed with reducing American trade reliance on China.

So expect some announcements this week on critical minerals, on top of other recent funding announcements aimed at building this industry in North America.

But this is still a project in its infancy. And there's no guarantee it'll work.

"If Canada wants to be top of mind, and have leverage, and be important … you have to bring something relevant," Greenwood said.

"[On critical minerals], Canada is poised to really make a gigantic difference, for itself, for the U.S., for the world. But if it doesn't get there for 15 or 20 years, it's going to be surpassed by other jurisdictions that can move more definitely and more quickly. Like Australia."

Maybe Biden will surprise everyone by not publicly mentioning any of these things. Maybe he'll leave the thornier issues for private discussions.

Maybe he'll give a speech to Parliament like Bill Clinton's. In that 1995 speech, the tough medicine was reserved for Quebec separatism.

The rest was all sugar.


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

    With files from Murray Brewster

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