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Opinion: Biden in Ottawa: What to expect from the president’s first official visit

Commentary

What should we expect from President Joe Biden’s first presidential trip to Ottawa? What issues will dominate the discussions? And are there likely to be any unexpected surprises coming out of the talks? For some insight on how this visit might go, The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer spoke with Derek Burney, chief of staff to former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Canada’s former ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993.

Unwelcome surprises

SEAN SPEER: As someone who has been involved in various bilateral meetings between U.S. presidents and Canadian prime ministers over the years, what kind of preparation goes into the topics and deliverables for the visit? How much of it is essentially baked between the two leaders even meet? Is there typically any room for spontaneity or adjustments on the fly?

DEREK BURNEY: Yes, especially when the two leaders are on similar wavelengths on issues and the communication channels are open and trusted. There is usually much advance preparation, primarily to negotiate and craft the main lines of a communique, leaving a few issues for the leaders to settle. This advance prep is intended primarily to prevent unwelcome surprises and to avoid matters going “off the rails” as they did on occasion with President Trump. I suspect this is the reason a senior PMO official was in Washington about ten days ago and why our ambassador, Kirsten Hillman, was recently in Ottawa.

That does not mean there is no room for spontaneity, but it does clear a lot of the underbrush so that the leaders can focus on what they regard as acute priorities—both North American and global.

Borders, security, and Buy America

SEAN SPEER: Polling tells us that the Canadian public was massively in favour of Joe Biden over Donald Trump during the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Yet on a number of files, the Biden Administration hasn’t necessarily been a great friend to Canada. What do you think is behind that? Is it merely domestic politics or is it something deeper?

DEREK BURNEY: That is true. Despite their shared views on climate change, Ukraine, and many woke fads of the moment, there is little evidence of tangible bilateral achievements with the Biden Administration. On the contrary, mind you, the president does have a full plate of domestic and global challenges that merit his attention. Issues with Canada do not seem to command much of a priority.

Getting attention in Washington and avoiding being “taken for granted” by Washington are always challenges for Canada. I suspect the president is more focused and concerned about immediate problems at his southern border than on problems with Canada, as he should be.

It is disappointing, however, that, when those problems—a huge influx of asylum-seekers—spill over into Canada, we do not get a constructive response. The Americans have seemed reluctant to discuss strengthening the Safe Third Country agreement.

Protectionism under Biden—Buy American on steroids and massive trade-distorting subsidies for green energy—are very troublesome for Canada. They are, of course, highly political, especially when Biden has leaned heavily on the progressive wing of his party for support and is facing “America First” challenges from many Republicans.

But Canada’s distinct lack of commitment on security issues does not help with a partner who is embroiled in major security threats—the intensifying Russia –China axis being the most prominent.

Canada’s Indo-Pacific irrelevance

SEAN SPEER: At a time in which there’s a growing consensus in Washington that U.S. policy vis-a-vis China must replace its past strategy of engagement with something firmer and more hawkish, how much does a perception of Canada as soft and unreliable on China affect bilateral relations between Canada and the United States? What, if anything, should the Trudeau government be doing to establish that it’s a partner in a new approach to China?

DEREK BURNEY: Canada has not really recovered from the “Two Michaels” fiasco with Beijing. The clumsy response to allegations about Chinese interference in our elections only exacerbates matters. The threat from the China–Russia axis is extremely serious. We should encourage the U.S. to take a stronger stance on this, but the depleted state of our own military and our limp contribution to alliance intelligence do not enhance our credibility. We have been overshadowed on security by our Commonwealth cousin Australia—the AUKUS alliance in the Indo-Pacific region is a case in point. Canada is no longer relevant.

Energy and the environment

SEAN SPEER: There’s been a lot of talk in Ottawa about the need to match the Americans on the generous incentives for clean technology investments in the Inflation Reduction Act. As an alternative, is there any scope for a bilateral partnership on energy and the environment? If so, what might it look like? If not, what do you think stands in its way?

DEREK BURNEY: We can never match the Americans on the subsidies game, as even Chrystia Freeland has acknowledged. We can only work closely with Japan and key Europeans to challenge the trade-distorting impact of these subsidies.

There is great potential for bilateral cooperation with the U.S. on energy, and North American energy independence should be a shared objective. But is there the will in Canada? With an eye on 2024, Biden is already tacking slightly to the centre on energy with his approval of the huge Willow Project in Alaska.

I see no evidence of the Trudeau administration adopting a similarly pragmatic approach to energy. They are mesmerized exclusively by climate change—a position that does little for either our economic prospects or national unity.

Managing expectations

SEAN SPEER: What will you be looking for coming out of the president’s visit? What do you anticipate?

DEREK BURNEY: Not much, my expectations are well under control. I would be delighted to be proven wrong. Nonetheless, it will be touted as a success by both parties and that enthusiasm will last about 24 hours. 

Lianne Bell: Notes from a rural neighbour: On COVID, community, and big-city solutions to every problem

Commentary

I hate black-eyed Susans.

Their blooms dotted throughout the fields bowing in the hot August heat meant summer break was about to end. Growing up on a farm I learned to measure time by the rhythms of nature. Staring up into the dark clear nights to find the Big Dipper hanging handle to the horizon told me winter was here to stay for some time. Dark and early mornings in the musty barn bottle feeding a newborn calf was the first sign spring was around the corner. Opening the school bus window to smell the fresh cut of hay in mid-June meant summer break was about to start.

For kids across rural Canada, my childhood was just like theirs, these natural markers completely common. For us, responsibilities came at an early age, hard work was a point of pride, and helping the neighbours was expected. Everyone pitched in all the time. Almost every rural family embodies these values and a sense of community that relies on each other, not some far-away government program. When the tractor gets stuck your neighbour and his bigger tractor come over to pull you out. When the farmer down the road shows up because their cows got out, it doesn’t matter if you are mid Christmas dinner, you put your boots on and help. That meant us kids too—feeding chickens before catching the bus to school, throwing hay bales in the summer, or helping to mend fences.

It’s a practical life, and deeply rewarding, but it is one that can be dismissed or misunderstood by our friends in the city. 

Arguments are made these days that the social and political divide is rural versus urban. And yet regardless of where someone chooses to live, the desires are the same. Everyone wants their kids to go to a good school, to feel safe walking down the street they live on, to show up to the hospital and know they will be taken care of. We all want the same things in our lives. So where does the hostility come from?

Growing up we would drive from our peaceful little farm to the big city of Toronto to visit my extended family. I knew we were close when my parents started remarking to each other about how close the homes were built. Stacked one upon another. My family couldn’t understand the appeal. Not that we didn’t recognize the charms of city life. Friends to play with down the street, restaurants to enjoy, and going to see the Raptors play. But when we headed for home, away from the bright lights to where the stars shone clear again, I felt free. 

When I left for university, I started to notice the tangible difference between how I grew up and how my friends in the city grew up. I dressed differently; my t-shirts were of every NASCAR track I had been to. There was never much point caring about clothes, who would care? The cows? I didn’t watch much TV growing up and Sundays were for church. All the cultural references were lost on me. I was an ice cube thrown into a pot of boiling water. 

The aspects of my life that I treasured and clung to were mostly foreign to my peers. They didn’t know about black-eyed Susans; they couldn’t see the Big Dipper. I felt like an outsider. Hillbilly was not said as a point of pride—here it meant that my life experiences were inadequate, that I was not cultured in the right ways. The labyrinth of social norms was meant to highlight that I didn’t belong. I went to the GAP and bought a turtleneck. 

Life marched on and my city-born husband and I had two sons. Children sharpen the senses. How would we raise these young men and what values did we want to teach them? My husband knew he married a hillbilly. He came with me to NASCAR, and he loved the stars. But I’d look out the window of our suburban home and think: “look how close our neighbours are”. It was time to get out. I wanted my boys to hate black-eyed Susans too. I dug my NASCAR t-shirts out of the closet and started packing. My relentlessly patient husband got on board and we moved to an acreage.   

The impacts and incentives of public policy are often urban-centric, dreamt up by people that don’t understand a rural way of life. These policies have often been frustrating and cumbersome for those of us outside the cities. However, no such policy had really been a lightning rod to rally the ire of rural people across the country at once.

That was until COVID came along.

Measures meant to protect people who live in dense communities where degrees of interaction are high were outlandish on the family farm. The rationalizations for these were often comical. Barbershops would be ordered closed in a community no one in the city knew the name of, where there wasn’t a COVID case within 100 kilometres. All under the auspices that maybe someone from the city would be desperate for a haircut and drive out of town.

Our friends in the city faced COVID first, and the fears and concerns they had were legitimate and valid. But our bonds started to fray. Rural communities overwhelmingly wanted policies that reflected our lifestyles—ones that recognized that we share a different sense of community, have a different relationship with our neighbours, and don’t work in highly populated environments. That calving doesn’t care about COVID and crops come off the field when they are ready, not when measures have been lifted. Our urban friends didn’t understand. Their valid and realized fears of the devastating impacts of the disease made the health measures inflexible for rural lifestyles. The tone was judgmental and severe. Rural people felt attacked, misunderstood, and desperate. It never changed and the breakdown was never addressed. 

COVID measures were eventually lifted and people mostly went back to their lives as before. The fabric that weaves us all together hasn’t been woven back together, though. Do our friends in the city know or care that their friends in the country feel betrayed? Does it matter? Elections are won in cities; public policy is made in cities and by people who live in cities. All we ask is you cast your thoughts on us and the hopes and dreams we have for our kids when you develop public policy. Help us restore our communities together. 

My family was driving into town the other day and as we merged onto the highway my husband remarked at how close the homes were built. He’d never noticed it before.

Choosing to move out of town was what was best for my family. I don’t want to live within 15 minutes of anything, never mind everything. Let us make the choice of how we raise our families and prioritize the way of life we inherited from our parents, our grandparents, and their parents. We mostly want to be left alone, to solve the problems we encounter on our own or with the help of our neighbours. And if things do get desperate enough that we come into town to meet with you, hear us out. Give us the chance to explain where we are coming from. That’s all we ask.