OTTAWA—Biden taketh away. But — maybe — Biden giveth, too.
After the new U.S. president cancelled the Keystone XL pipeline project on his first day in office, prompting outrage from the Alberta premier and disappointment from the prime minister, Joe Biden signalled during a phone call with Justin Trudeau on Friday that he doesn’t intend to deliver another economic hit, according to a senior government official.
Speaking on condition they not be named, the official said Biden reassured Trudeau that the intention of his proposed “buy American” rules for a massive government procurement program was not to impact Canada. The official said the two leaders agreed to continue to consult on the policy, and planned a meeting for next month.
While the official said Biden did not rule out the possibility of future impacts on Canada, the president’s message could soothe fears of business leaders in this country about the prospect of ongoing trade tensions with Canada’s largest economic ally after four tumultuous years with Donald Trump in the White House.
And it came amid a conversation that the official described as much lengthier and more substantive than the typical calls between Trudeau and Trump, which often lasted just a few minutes.
The leaders discussed a range of issues in what was Biden’s first official call with a foreign leader. The official confirmed that Trudeau — as promised earlier in the day — raised Biden’s cancellation of the Keystone XL oil pipeline that has had Alberta Premier Jason Kenney fuming and calling on Ottawa to ensure there are “economic consequences” for the U.S. if Biden doesn’t reconsider.
They also spoke about the COVID-19 pandemic and how medical systems are connected across the border — a nod, the official said, to how Trump tried to stop the flow of essential supplies last year.
Defence co-operation, particularly in the Arctic, was also discussed, along with the perennial dispute over softwood lumber, the official said.
And Trudeau raised the plight of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, two Canadians who have been jailed in China for more than two years in what Ottawa has described as an unjustifiable retaliation for the arrest of Meng Wanzhou — an executive for Chinese telecom giant Huawei — at the request of the U.S. in 2018.
But the official said the biggest takeaway was the positive tone of the conversation, echoing what Trudeau had earlier told reporters outside his residence at Rideau Cottage: that, despite disagreements that include the Keystone XL cancellation, the Liberal government believes it has much in common with the new Biden administration. That includes agreeing on the need to fight climate change and work together to address the pandemic, Trudeau said.
“These are things that we’re going to be able to dig into significantly,” Trudeau said Friday morning, hours before his call with the U.S. president.
“It’s not always going to be perfect alignment with the United States. That’s the case with any given president, but [we’re] in a situation where we’re much more aligned on values, on focus, on the work that needs to be done to give opportunities for everyone while we build a better future.”
The leaders’ call came as the Alberta premier continued to rage over the president’s revocation of the permit to build Keystone XL, a $10-billion oil pipeline expansion that promised to create at least 2,300 jobs in Canada.
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In a letter to Trudeau on Thursday night, Kenney called on the prime minister to try to revive the pipeline project as part of a “broader North American energy and climate agreement” with the new U.S. administration. And if Biden doesn’t reconsider, Kenney called for “proportionate economic consequences” for the U.S. and said Washington should cover money the province lost supporting the project, which includes at least $1.5 billion from the Alberta treasury.
But while business leaders have also expressed disappointment over the cancellation, many had warned of further trouble on the economic front: Biden’s “buy American” pledge to freeze out foreign companies from his proposed $500-billion government procurement package.
“What he has signalled in the campaign is a ‘buy American’ policy that is even more restrictive than Donald Trump’s was — and, again, it’s driven by domestic politics,” Perrin Beatty, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, told the Star this week.
Dennis Darby, head of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters industry group, said Friday that he hoped Trudeau would press Biden to shift his thinking to include Canadian businesses in a “buy North American” strategy.
“We went through the whole renegotiation of NAFTA. We were very pleased out of the negotiation that Canada was able to keep Mr. Trump from putting in U.S. content provisions,” he said. “It’s kind of ironic when the Democrats come in and one of the first things they’re speaking about is basically something that is counter to NAFTA.”
For Bessma Momani, a political scientist at the University of Waterloo and senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation, the fact that such concerns are being aired shows the U.S. has changed after four years with Trump as president.
Protectionism is a force in both major American political parties, as evidenced by Biden’s “buy American” pledge, Momani said. There is also a renewed push from progressive Americans to make up ground lost under Trump in the fight against climate change, she said, pointing to Biden’s fulfilment of his pledge to cancel Keystone XL.
But outside how these factors impact Canada directly, Momani said Biden’s presidency will be consequential for the wider international community. Where Trump denigrated institutions like the United Nations and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Biden will likely re-engage, she said.
He already has taken steps to return the U.S. to the global Paris Agreement on climate change and the World Health Organization, Momani said, predicting as well that U.S. relations with China will “thaw” under Biden.
And that will likely have implications for Canada, particularly as Ottawa continues to press China to release Kovrig and Spavor.
“Having the first call phone with Canada is kind of a reasserting of the traditions and diplomacy that we’ve all expected,” Momani said.
“I think Biden’s respect for tradition, respect for the unwritten rules of diplomacy, does mean that we have a better chance” of getting Kovrig and Spavor released, Momani said.
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga
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