OTTAWA — On Feb. 19, a wintry Ottawa day, President Barack Obama tried to rekindle the once-warm relationship between Canada and the U.S.
“I love this country and I think we could not have a better ally,” Obama said at a press conference following a working lunch with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"As neighbors, we are so closely linked that we have a tendency to take our relationship for granted," said Obama, deliberately distancing himself from the eight years of strained U.S.-Canada relations during George W. Bush's adminstration.
Obama pledged to do all he can to strengthen ties between the two countries and said he is “extraordinarily grateful” to Canadian military families for their sacrifices in the war in Afghanistan, and he took a shot at Americans who suggest Canada is a weak link in the war on terror.
“We have no doubt about Canada’s commitment to security in the U.S. and in Canada,” he said.
Obama’s statement supported a key message that Harper wants to convey to Americans. In the joint press conference following their meeting, Harper said, “I want to make this clear to our American friends ... The view of this government is unequivocal: threats to the United States are threats to Canada.”
As expected, Obama and Harper used their two-hour meeting to focus on three key policy areas: trade and the economy; continental security and Afghanistan; and the environment, which produced the only concrete initiative of the first visit between the two leaders.
Deeming energy one of the most pressing challenges of our time, Obama and Harper announced plans for a U.S.-Canada Clean Energy Dialogue aimed at expanding efforts in clean energy research and development, promoting investment and working on new clean energy technology, including the sequestering of carbon dioxide.
“The President and I agreed to a new initiative that will further cross-border cooperation on environmental protection and environmental security,” Harper said, signaling a sea change in his own government’s approach to climate change.
When he became prime minister in 2006, Harper — who hails from Alberta, the center of Canada’s oil and gas industry — was stridently opposed to the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Faced with mounting domestic opposition and the loss of a key international ally in former U.S. president George W. Bush, who also resisted climate change legislation, Harper has slowly relented.
Obama and Harper assured journalists that the climate change discussions will be held at senior levels of each government, and will be expected to produce quick results.
Officials said most of the Obama-Harper meeting focused on the economy, specifically any ways in which the two countries could work together to strengthen their respective economies.
Both Obama and Harper reiterated their commitment to making the North American Free Trade Agreement work better for all those involved. Obama said he believes trade is integral to the economic health of the continent. But Obama also said that he wants labor and trade provisions — which are currently contained in side agreements to the NAFTA — to be integrated into the main agreement.
Asked what he thinks the relationship between Canada and the U.S. will look like in four years, Harper had this to say: "I think this would be the safest prediction in the world — that today Canada and the United States are closer economically, socially, culturally in terms of our international partnerships than any two nations on the face of the earth, closer friends than any two nations on the face of the earth. And I think we can safely predict that in four years' time we will be in exactly the same spot."
Obama’s visit wasn't without its comical moments. He opened his press conference by saying how happy he was to be in "Iowa ... Ottawa." And there was one historic encounter: Obama met with Canada’s Governor General Michaelle Jean, who is black and serves as head of state.
And although Obama was only in Canada briefly, he still drew crowds.
He was greeted at Parliament Hill shortly before noon by more than 2,500 onlookers, who had begun gathering in the pre-dawn hours. For a moment, it appeared he would go directly into the building, but after shaking hands with Harper, he suggested returning outside to wave to the cheering crowd.
Read more about Obama's trip to Canada:
Obama's helpful guide to Canada
Obama's trip to the north