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In first meeting with Justin Trudeau, Joe Biden pledges U.S. help to get detained Canadians released by China


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In first meeting with Justin Trudeau, Joe Biden pledges U.S. help to get detained Canadians released by China

OTTAWA—Touting bonds of friendship and a renewed commitment to work together, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden pledged Tuesday to co-ordinate a range of climate policies and jointly press for the release of two Canadians detained in China.

Speaking after his two-hour, virtual summit with Trudeau and a suite of top-ranking cabinet members, Biden pledged to support Canada in its dispute with Beijing over what the Liberal government calls the “arbitrary detention” of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. The two men were jailed more than two years ago after the arrest in Vancouver of Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese telecommunications executive charged with crimes by the United States.

“Human beings are not bartering chips,” Biden said. “We’re going to work together until we get their safe return. Canada and the United States will stand together against abuse of universal rights and democratic freedom.”

The statement comes one day after the House of Commons backed a Conservative motion to declare China is committing genocide against its Uighur Muslim population and follows years of strained relations between Ottawa and Beijing.

As the Star reported Monday, Tuesday’s meeting — Biden’s first bilateral summit as president with another world leader — also produced the expected “road map” for co-operation between Canada and the U.S. on a range of shared goals.

According to a joint statement published Tuesday night, this “blueprint” for co-operation includes a pledge to co-ordinate climate policies across the border in a push to slash greenhouse-gas emissions to net-zero by 2050.

The countries agreed to create a joint strategy to make batteries for electric vehicles and promote their use, find ways to reduce methane emissions, and announce stronger targets for reduced greenhouse gas pollution before the next United Nations climate summit later this year.

They also pledged to “protect” businesses from “unfair” competition with countries with weaker climate policies — a potential reference to co-operation on so-called “carbon border adjustment” tariffs — and to encourage the sale of clean electricity across the border.

It amounted to a striking departure from how the U.S. backed away from climate action under Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump. And Trudeau took note, telling Biden before the meeting went behind closed doors that “U.S. leadership has been sorely missed over the past years” and that, “as we were preparing the joint rollout and communiqué from this, it’s nice when the Americans are not pulling out all references to climate change and instead adding them in.”

Other areas of co-operation in the road map included agreement by Canada on the importance of ramping up defence spending to two per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), deepen the Canada-U.S. defence partnership in the Arctic, work together on refugee resettlement, and “strengthen” supply chains that were shown to be vital for supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But absent from the list of commitments was any reference to COVID vaccines and Biden’s “Buy American” proposals, priorities highlighted in advance of Tuesday’s meeting by opposition politicians and Canadian stakeholders.

A government official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the issue was discussed at the meeting, but that Americans are still working out how the policy will work.

Ken Neumann is the national president of the United Steelworkers that has 225,000 union members across Canada’s steel, aluminum, forestry and several other sectors. In an interview Tuesday, Neumann welcomed the return of cordial relations after four years with Trump, when the U.S. slapped tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum in the name of “national security.”

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But he said there is “no doubt” that jobs will be lost in this country if Trudeau can’t get an exemption to Biden’s Buy American rules. The order would prioritize almost $2 trillion (U.S.) in promised government spending for American companies, potentially excluding Canadian suppliers of steel, cement and other goods from that massive procurement push.

“It means a lot that we have proper access to the stimulus package,” Neumann said, pointing to how Canada was exempt from Buy American rules when the Obama administration was trying to spur economic recovery after the 2008 financial crisis.

“You’re not going to get a better trading partner than Canada, and I think the facts speak for themselves with regards to the supply chains and the integrated market,” he said.

And while Trudeau and Biden stressed the vital importance of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no indication that the U.S. would soon change course and share its domestic-made supply of vaccines with Canada.

The trickle of vaccine shipments to Canada in recent weeks comes after the U.S. clinched the first 100 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot made in Michigan for its own citizens. Canada, meanwhile, has no domestic manufacturing for approved COVID shots and has been getting vaccines from facilities in Europe, where production issues created delays that have fuelled opposition criticism of the Liberal government.

Ottawa also expects to get the bulk of its AstraZeneca supply — 20 million doses — from the U.S., according to Trudeau’s minister in charge of government purchases.

In a statement before the summit, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said Trudeau needed to ask Biden “whether we can start to receive vaccines manufactured by our strongest ally” and called on the prime minister to bring up the cancellation of Keystone XL and press for a Buy American exemption.

Other leaders said Trudeau should push the president on a range of issues.

Annamie Paul, the leader of the Green party, said Ottawa should try and clinch joint tariffs with the U.S. on goods imported from countries with weak climate policies. She also said the countries should ban fracking — a controversial process to extract fossil fuels from the ground — and increase their goals to slash greenhouse gas emissions under the international Paris Agreement.

The NDP, meanwhile, tried to ridicule Trudeau by releasing a satirical agenda for the meeting in which government staff crossed out issues where New Democrats want the Liberals to take action, such as pushing for a Buy American exemption and raising the federal minimum wage in Canada.

Speaking Tuesday morning, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Trudeau was “getting a bit of pass” when Trump was president, but will have a harder time looking progressive when the Biden administration is championing left-wing causes like pausing student debt and supporting workers

“With the comparison with Trump it was easy to look good. But now you’ve got someone doing a lot of the things that should be done,” Singh said.

Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga

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