Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits US with two aims: Push trade and avoid Donald Trump's ire

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will visit US President Donald Trump on Feb 13, 2017.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will visit US President Donald Trump on Feb 13, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

OTTAWA (REUTERS) - When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits United States President Donald Trump on Monday (Feb 13), he will look to nurture economic ties while avoiding tensions over issues such as immigration on which the two are sharply at odds.

Trudeau has taken a low-key approach towards Trump, a Republican who campaigned on a pledge to toughen US immigration policies and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) among Canada, the United States and Mexico.

Ahead of Monday's meeting with Trump at the White House - the first between the two leaders since Trump took office last month - Trudeau said he expected they would "find a lot of common ground".

At a news conference on Friday, Trudeau also said he would look to "defend and demonstrate Canadian values", but do so"respectfully and not from an ideological standpoint".

Trump's vow to renegotiate Nafta has unnerved Canadian officials, even though he has singled out Mexico in his criticism of the free trade deal that he has called a US job killer. Canada sends 75 per cent of its exports to the United States.

Details about a tense telephone call late last month between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has also stirred wariness.

The Washington Post, citing unidentified senior US officials, said Trump abruptly ended the call and said it was the "worst call by far" he had had with a foreign leader, even though Australia has long been a staunch US ally.

On Twitter, Trump labelled a refugee swap deal with Australia "dumb".

Trudeau had a strong rapport with former Democratic President Barack Obama, prompting pundits to describe their relationship as a "bromance".

Soon after Trump put a hold on allowing refugees into the US and temporarily banned travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries, citing the need to head off attacks by Islamist militants, the Canadian prime minister took to Twitter to say refugees were welcome in Canada.

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


Still, analysts said Trudeau has strong incentives to build a relationship with Trump given rising anti-trade sentiment.

"You don't have to be a genius to see there are some stark differences between them," said Duke University professor Stephen Kelly, former US deputy chief of mission to Ottawa.

"But is this the time to be poking people in the eye? I would say it is not... in some ways the president is a guy for whom personal relationships may be even more important."

A White House official said a number of topics were expected to be discussed, including Nafta and the Keystone pipeline.

Canadian pollster Nik Nanos said Trudeau, who remains popular at home more than a year after winning a surprise Liberal majority government, faces the same pressure all Canadian leaders do when they engage with US presidents - keep the economic ties tight but do not appear too chummy or subordinate.

Nanos expects that Trudeau, if asked, will speak about how Canada is welcoming refugees or seeking to expand free trade, without saying anything critical about Trump's point of view, conscious that Trump has not hesitated to take an aggressive tone with other leaders.

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