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U.S. State Dinner For Justin Trudeau Marks First In Nearly Two Decades

Susan Walsh
President Barack Obama and Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau share the stage during their bilateral meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila, Philippines last November. Trudeau is set to visit the White House on Thursday.

When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits with President Barack Obama at a state dinner this Thursday, it will mark the first time in nearly 20 years the United States has hosted a Canadian leader for a high-profile White House event.

The last such occasion was in 1997, when former U.S. President Bill Clinton threw a state dinner for Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. A lot has changed in both American and Canadian politics since then.

State dinners are lavish affairs, and a former White House social secretary has called it the “highest honor” the president can bestow on a leader. There’s already a lot of buzz about what the state dinner means for U.S.-Canadian relations, and just how long the goodwill will last given that it’s likely a new U.S. ambassador to Canada will be chosen by the next president.

Professor of Political Science and Dean of St. Michael's College Jeffrey Ayres talked with VPR about politics across the border.

On why it’s been so long

“One of the biggest reasons is political differences. I think the relationship between the two countries is very important. But the two recent leaders, certainly President Obama and more recently, Prime Minister Harper, just didn't get along very well. And they didn't see eye to eye politically.

"And I think things also got hung up earlier, under [President George W.] Bush. Post 9/11, I think there was a lot of tension in politics surrounding that, so I think this is a real opportunity to reset the relationship."

"[Obama] recognizes... how important the relationship is with Canada, and that regardless of the fact that he'll be out within a year, this is a relationship that needs to be righted." - Jeffrey Ayres, St. Michael's College

On whether the dinner will increase Canada’s visibility in the U.S.

I actually think it already has, and it happens to have a lot to do with Justin Trudeau. So Trudeau is seen as this incredibly charismatic, handsome, young, optimistic, forward-looking leader. His wife is seen is also very glamorous, Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau. And there has been a lot of coverage. The Washington Post has been running some really fascinating stories … calling Trudeau the ‘anti-Trump.’ There's a lot of buzz in D.C. right now… [about] what Trudeau is going to say; he's bringing some very important ministers down with him, and it's an important event.

“A state dinner is the highest diplomatic honor … Ye,s Obama is technically a lame-duck president, but I do think he immediately invited Trudeau to this dinner after congratulating him for his victory in forming a majority government back in the fall.

“It was both a testament to how much Obama liked Trudeau — I think he really feels a sense of kinship to him — but I also think he recognizes … how important the relationship is with Canada, and that regardless of the fact that he'll be out within a year, this is a relationship that needs to be righted.”

On Trudeau as the ‘anti-Trump,’ Canada accepting refugees

“It's a stark contrast in many different ways. They've actually reach that goal, the 25,000th refugee has already arrived in Canada from from Syria. Trudeau greeted some of the first refugees at Pearson International Airport in Toronto saying, ‘Welcome to your new home.’

“He's a much more inclusive, bilingual, openly supportive of gender equity … over 60 percent of Canadians feel the country's going in the right direction and they support Trudeau's majority government, and over 60 percent of Americans actually feel the country is going in the wrong direction.

“Actually, interestingly enough, economically it's a flip because United States is actually doing better economically than Canada. So there is some disjunction between the two countries."

On economics

“Trade is important. What Trudeau will do and what his ministers will do is remind Obama and his officials that Canadians or Canada buys more from the United States each year than all the 28 members of the E.U. And 9 million American jobs are supposedly dependent on Canadian purchase of American goods. The exchange rate is far different than it was a few years ago, and it will have an impact on some of the issues that they talk about.”

“One of the nagging issues that's bedeviled the two countries for a couple decades is this softwood lumber dispute … It's the lumber that goes towards building homes, housing starts, and there's just been a long dispute.

“Private timber interests in the United States have claimed for a long time that Canada has an unfair advantage because more of softwood lumber sales are actually public sales, coming off publicly-owned land. There's an argument that there's an unfair trade advantage there.

“And so the United States is oftentimes, even Bush … a supposedly a free-trade Republican, slapped a tariff against softwood lumber. There was an agreement reached under Harper that agreement has now expired.

“Obviously a considerable amount of Vermont's economy is dependent on its relationship with Canada … so if our relationship with Canada's improving, I think that can only be a good thing for Vermont."

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