WASHINGTON — U.S. President Joe Biden will travel to Ottawa on March 23 to meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Canadian soil, his first visit north of the border since taking the oath of office in 2021.
The president and his wife Jill Biden will spend two days in Canada, the White House confirmed Thursday, although a detailed itinerary has not yet been released.
The two leaders will discuss ongoing upgrades to the aging, jointly led Norad continental defence system, which came under heavy scrutiny last month when a Chinese surveillance balloon drifted through U.S. and Canadian airspace.
Fears, too, about unchecked Russian aggression and the ability of the two countries to defend the continent's northern frontier have only accelerated in the year since the start of Vladimir Putin's bloody invasion of Ukraine.
"Keeping North Americans safe from new and emerging threats requires a co-ordinated response," the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement.
"During the visit, the prime minister and the president will highlight ongoing co-operation on continental defence, including Norad's key role in defending North America. They will also advance co-operation in the Arctic."
The two leaders also plan to talk about how to fortify shared supply chains, combat climate change and "accelerate the clean energy transition," the White House said.
One of the likely highlights of the visit will come when Biden addresses a joint session of Parliament "to highlight the importance of the United States-Canada bilateral relationship," said press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
A visit to Canada is customarily one of a new U.S. president's first foreign trips, a tradition upended two years ago by the COVID-19 pandemic. Like the rest of the world at the time, the two leaders settled for a virtual meeting instead.
The virus interfered in Canada-U.S. relations again in 2022, when Biden tested positive for COVID a second time, forcing the White House to scrap its plan for a summertime visit.
Delayed though it may be, it will be an important bilateral meeting for both countries, said Scotty Greenwood, CEO of the Canadian American Business Council.
"It's an occasion which focuses a bureaucracy on the breadth and depth of bilateral and multilateral issues … and that's a really good thing, because it causes everybody here to focus on Canada," Greenwood said.
"It also allows the president himself to think about and reflect on Canada in the context of all the other global relationships the U.S. has, and that can be a very good thing."
In the end, however, it's essential that the federal government in Ottawa make the most of the opportunity, she added.
"The extent to which Canada wants to lean in and try to help solve some of the pain points the U.S. has is a good opportunity for Canada," Greenwood said. "We won't know until the visit happens if Canada wants to do that."
As always, the two leaders have a lot to talk about — much of it a direct offshoot of the pandemic as both countries recalibrate their domestic and international supply chains, bilateral travel rules and economic recovery efforts, all of it with an eye toward arresting the march of climate change around the world.
Strategies to minimize dependence on China for critical minerals and semiconductors, two vital components in the global push to expand the popularity of electric vehicles and fuel what some experts liken to a post-pandemic industrial revolution, are sure to be high on the agenda.
So too will be a united front in opposing Russia's offensive in Ukraine, as well as what to do about Haiti, where Canada is facing international pressure to take a lead role in quelling widespread and rampant gang violence.
The PMO statement emphasized a familiar Trudeau message on Haiti: that efforts to deal with the crisis should be "Haitian-led."
There will be bilateral tensions to address as well.
The post-NAFTA era, where the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement is now the law of the land in continental trade, has been marked by irritants, including access to Canada's dairy market and how the U.S. defines foreign content in autos.
Immigration has also become a hot topic: while Republican lawmakers usually have a singular focus on the flow of migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border, a spike in the number of people entering from Canada has also caught their eye.
Trudeau has publicly acknowledged that the two countries need to renegotiate the 2004 Safe Third Country Agreement in order to staunch the flow of irregular migration into Canada, but there's little appetite in the U.S. to do so.
Even so-called trusted travellers are having a harder time than they did before the pandemic, with the fast-track program known as Nexus having been hampered by a cross-border jurisdictional squabble.
The White House said "irregular migration and forced displacement throughout the region" would be on the agenda, but offered no other details. The PMO mentioned only "immigration." Neither mentioned the treaty.
Biden's speech to Parliament will follow in the footsteps of his former boss, then-president Barack Obama, who made a similar address when he last visited Ottawa in June of 2016.
Biden himself visited the national capital in December of that year, as Obama's second term was winding down and the world was bracing for the inauguration of his Republican successor, Donald Trump.
"I know sometimes we're like the big brother that's a pain in the neck and overbearing … but we're more like family, even, than allies," the vice-president at the time said during a state dinner in his honour.
He cheered Canada's role in defending and strengthening what he called a "liberal international order" amid the rise of authoritarianism around the world, perhaps sensing what the next four years had in store.
"We're going to get through this period because we're Americans and Canadians, and so had I a glass I'd toast you by saying, 'Vive le Canada,' because we need you very, very badly."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 9, 2023.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press