Obama hits it off with Canadian PM Trudeau

Lavish White House welcome and warm, informal tone a signal of improved ties

WASHINGTON • President Barack Obama has turned the page on years of shaky ties with Canada by staging a lavish White House welcome for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, making clear the new leader is a man after his own heart.

Mr Trudeau, 44, the left-leaning Liberal Party leader and son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, took power last November. He already enjoys a closer bond with the Democratic President than his right-of-centre predecessor, Mr Stephen Harper of the Conservatives, managed in more than six years of dealing with the Obama administration.

"He campaigned on a message of hope and of change. His positive and optimistic vision is inspiring young people," Mr Obama said after meeting Mr Trudeau in the Oval Office. "So, from my perspective, what's not to like?" he added, also noting Mr Trudeau's commitment to the environment.

Keeping good relations with the United States is critical for Canada, which sends 75 per cent of its exports to its southern neighbour. Mr Trudeau brought along six Cabinet ministers in a sign of how seriously he took the visit.

Mr Obama struck a warm, informal tone from the start and told Mr Trudeau at a state dinner he "may well be the most popular Canadian named Justin". Singer Justin Bieber is from Canada.

The White House dinner was the first for a Canadian leader since 1997. Mr Obama never hosted one for Mr Harper, who irritated the administration by arguing forcefully for building a new trans- border pipeline to carry Canadian crude through the US, a plan that Mr Obama ultimately vetoed.

At an arrival ceremony on Thursday morning, Mr Obama teased Mr Trudeau about the failure in recent years of Canadian hockey teams to win the sport's top honour.

"Where's the Stanley Cup right now?" he asked. "I'm sorry. Is it in my home town with the Chicago Blackhawks?"

Mr Trudeau replied there was a high US demand for Canadian exports, including three of the star players who helped the Blackhawks win the National Hockey League championship last year.

The two leaders put aside differences over Syria and the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group to joke about greying hair and trade compliments about their spouses and kids. The warmth of the encounter triggered a flood of online jokes and tongue-in-cheek reports on a budding "bromance" between them, as photos went viral showing them smiling like old buddies, or cooing over a photogenic baby on the South Lawn.

But, in Ottawa, Conservative Party foreign affairs spokesman Tony Clement said Mr Trudeau's visit had little deeper meaning, given that Mr Obama would be out of office in January next year.

Mr Obama and Mr Trudeau met as their country's leaders for the first time at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila in November, a month after the Canadian won a general election.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 12, 2016, with the headline 'Obama hits it off with Canadian PM Trudeau'. Print Edition | Subscribe