USA First Look

Can Canada's Justin Trudeau avoid Trump's ire?

As President Trump prepares to welcome Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the White House on Monday, many Canadians worry that the new US president could be as combative as he was with the leaders of Mexico and Australia.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa in November.
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/AP/File
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Don’t end up like Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto or Australia’s Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull.

That’s the advice many Canadians are giving Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as he visits the White House on Monday in his first face-to-face meeting with President Trump. The two leaders have spoken over the phone before, with Mr. Trudeau reiterating his support for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines on two separate occasions.

Canadians typically expect their leaders to handle themselves a certain way around US presidents, according to Canadian public opinion pollster Nik Nanos: keep economic ties, but do not appear too chummy or subordinate.

Trudeau’s late father and a former prime minister, Pierre, played the part, poking previous presidents during the nearly 16 years he was in office. And the younger Trudeau and former President Barack Obama had a strong relationship some pundits even dubbed a “bromance.” But it’s Mr. Trump’s unpredictability and his protectionist outlook that have some in Canada cautioning their leader to play it safe this time around.  

"This meeting is more about avoiding pitfalls than trying to engage on some of the big issues," Mr. Nanos told Reuters. "It's definitely the policy of laying low."

Trudeau and Trump are expected to talk about the economy, refugees and immigration, and women in the workforce, among other issues.

“We’re going to talk about all sorts of things we align on, like jobs and economic growth, opportunities for the middle class – the fact that millions of good jobs on both sides of our border depend on the smooth flow of goods and services across that border,” said Trudeau.

But he added they are also “going to talk about things that I’m sure we disagree on and we’ll do it in a respectful way. Canada will always stay true to the values that have made us this extraordinary country, a place of openness.”

The stakes are high for Canada. The country sends about 75 percent of its exports across its southern border to the United States and 98 percent of its oil exports. The US, in turn, sends 18 percent of its exports to Canada.

But Trump promised on the campaign trail to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Trump’s criticism has been directed at Mexico, but Canadians fear a renegotiation of the trade agreement could also sideswipe its trade relationship with the United States. A Trump adviser says Canada shouldn’t worry, however.

Stephen Schwarzman, also a Wall Street tycoon, has said “things should go well for Canada” if the president renegotiates NAFTA because Canada isn’t like other countries. Mr. Schwarzman, who leads Trump’s economic advisory group, has said Canada has a balanced trade relationship with the US, while other countries don’t and aren’t as open to America’s trade.  

The US and Canadian administrations also have plans to forge a partnership to empower women in the working world. They plan to launch a new task force called the United States Canada Council for the Advancement of Women Business Leaders-Female Entrepreneurs. The first step is a roundtable meeting on Monday between Trump, Trudeau, and women entrepreneurs, according to American and Canadian officials. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, recruited roundtable participants, set an agenda for the meeting, and is expected to participate.

But it’s the social issues dividing a protectionist Trump and a liberal Trudeau that has Canadians most worried. Their different views were on display following Trump’s executive order suspending the US refugee program and halting travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries. After the travel ban went into effect two weeks ago, Trudeau posted a tweet that quickly trended online.

“To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.”

A Trudeau spokeswoman told the Associated Press the prime minister plans to discuss Canada’s immigration and refugee policy with Trump. Canadian observers just hope it remains civil.

"We're dealing with someone who has abused the Mexican president and the Australian prime minister," Robert Bothwell, a professor at the University of Toronto, told the Associated Press, referring to Trump.

Dr. Bothwell said Trudeau should avoid confrontation considering the stakes and how delicate the situation is.

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.