Defence spending, Roxham Road, Buy America: The issues Canada wants to talk about when Biden visits

defence spending, roxham road, buy america: the issues canada wants to talk about when biden visits

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with U.S. President Joe Biden in Mexico City, Mexico, January 10, 2023.

OTTAWA — During U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Ottawa over the next two days, the American delegation will be thinking about global concerns, while Canada’s focus will be closer to home — with everything from Roxham Road, Buy America provisions, the crisis in Haiti, defence spending and Norad modernization a likely part of the conversation.

“The U.S. issues are almost all linked to security and international affairs. And the Canadians are looking at economics much more, and that is fairly typical,” said Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Biden will arrive in Ottawa on Thursday evening and stay through to a Friday evening dinner.

Why is Biden visiting?

There’s no specific agenda driving the trip — Biden was elected in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and this will be his first visit to Canada as president.

The White House initially said the president would come in 2022, and then the visit had to wait to see who had control of Congress, and for the state of the union speech, Sands explained.

“All of that just kept dragging. And now we can see the spring full of summits and meetings and presidential commitments. And I think the White House and the State Department were looking for a window in which they could squeeze this in because the longer they didn’t do it, the more it was going to become awkward for everyone, including Trudeau.”

What is Biden looking for?

Eric Miller, president of Rideau Potomac Strategy Group, said Canadian defence spending will be at the top of Biden’s list. Given the war in Ukraine and concerns over China, the U.S. wants to see Canada increase its defence spending to the NATO target of two per cent of GDP.

“That’s going to be something that is an overriding issue, because … defence policy is going to be a major driver in this new world that we’re in and it will affect posture vis-à-vis China and the posture vis-à-vis Ukraine and Russia,” Miller said.

That includes modernization of Norad, the joint military command with the U.S. that provides a surveillance system used to identify attacks from land and sea.

Following the recent U.S. take-down of a suspected Chinese spy balloon, “you have a greater focus now on how do you actually deal with the Arctic and defending the Arctic.”

But Sands noted the U.S. will also have to acknowledge the steps Canada has taken on defence, such as the commitments it has made to Norad. Last year, the Liberal government announced Canada will spend $4.9 billion over the next six years to modernize the Norad, part of a $40-billion investment over the next two decades.

The United States is also looking for Canada to take a leading role in addressing the political and humanitarian crises in Haiti, which has been overrun by gangs. The U.S. is reluctant to lead any kind of intervention “because there have been a number of interventions over the years, and the situation has only worsened,” Miller said.

He noted “Haiti is just a boat ride away from Florida,” and there are concerns about “continued outflows of migrants … not only to the U.S., but also to Canada, where there’s a sizable Haitian diaspora.”

Carleton University professor Aaron Ettinger said it’s “possible that Biden will ask Trudeau again to lead a mission in Haiti, to seek stabilization.” That’s something Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is unlikely to want to do, because it is an “unglamorous and kind of impossible thing to accomplish.”

Sands agreed “Haiti is a really tough assignment. There’s no easy answer. There’s no solution.”

What about Canada?

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Trudeau said he would “of course” be talking about China with Biden. “But the centre of our conversations will be about jobs and growth, critical minerals and fighting climate change, and continuing to build an economy across our continent that works for all of our citizens,” he said, according to a transcript.

Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said he expects “lots of conversation” around critical minerals” and for “something to be said” in the final press release.

Trade and ensuring Canadian businesses have access to the U.S. market is probably priority number one for Trudeau, by ensuring there are exemptions to Buy America provisions in the U.S. economic stimulus legislation, Ettinger said. In his state of the union speech, Biden pledged to use only American materials in infrastructure projects, which triggered concerns from Canadian manufacturers. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Buy America provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act were his party’s primary concern ahead of the visit.

Maryscott Greenwood, CEO of the Canadian American Business Council, said Trudeau will “have to raise Roxham Road,” the irregular border crossing being used by migrants. But she noted there’s a difference between flagging an issue as something to work on and “resolving it and announcing a solution.” Greenwood said she doesn’t expect “big breakthroughs on the irregular flow of people across our borders.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said in a scrum on Parliament Hill she expects there will be conversations with the Biden administration on Roxham Road. She also didn’t indicate Canada would be taking a new approach to Haiti. “What we’ve said is that we would be helping Haitians to find solutions by themselves, and what I mean by that, it’s particularly helping the Haitian national police to deal with the gangs that have taken control of the island,” Joly said according to a transcript, also noting Canada would announce new sanctions.

So what can we expect to come out of the visit?

Much of the purpose of the visit is symbolic, but that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant, the experts said. “The value here is to kind of put President Biden in a very personal way in a position to affirm that we’re allies, that we’re friends, that we’re working together on a range of issues,” Sands said.

Greenwood pointed out a bilateral visit forces the United States to stop and think about Canada, including for a couple of weeks ahead while getting ready for the visit. She said the visit is an opportunity to build on the trust that already exists between the two countries.

“That’s important because sometimes you have to draw from that reservoir when you’re resolving difficulties, so it’s good to replenish the reservoir from time to time.”

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