WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried to claim a moral victory Thursday after his day at the White House did little to defuse an escalating continental dispute over President Joe Biden's plans to encourage Americans to buy more electric vehicles.
Trudeau and several senior cabinet ministers arrived in the U.S. capital hoping to convince Biden that his proposed tax incentive worth up to $12,500 to a prospective new-car buyer would kneecap Canada's auto industry.
They depart Friday with little to show for their efforts, leaving behind an administration that sounds unwilling to plot a different course and determined to focus its efforts on selling American-made cars and trucks built with U.S. union labour.
"In a relationship as big and as deep and as all-encompassing for so many of us, as is the relationship between Canada and the United States, there are always going to be challenges coming up," Trudeau said.
"As we solve some, new ones will arise, and what is most important is that we have strong, direct lines of communication and that we engage with them in constructive ways. That is exactly what we've done."
During their customary fireside photo op in the Oval Office, Biden offered little evidence he was in a conciliatory mood, offering the usual bilateral pleasantries but promptly shutting down questions about the burgeoning dispute.
"We're going to talk about that, to some extent," Biden said, noting that the measure — part of a $1.75-trillion climate change and social spending measure central to his Build Back Better agenda — was a long way from becoming the law of the land.
"There's a lot of complicating factors."
As the meeting continued far from the glare of TV cameras, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was herself taking questions about Canada's claim that the proposal violates NAFTA's continental trade successor, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
"We don't view it that way, I think it’s safe to say," Psaki said.
"The electric vehicles component of the package is something the president is personally very excited about because he believes it's an industry of the future, an industry that can help create good-paying union jobs.
"It will help consumers. It will help incentivize the purchasing of electric vehicles and the driving of electric vehicles — something that's good for our climate."
As if to punctuate the trip, the House of Representatives was debating the Build Back Better legislation throughout the evening, precisely as Trudeau was taking questions at the Canadian Embassy, with hopes high that it might pass before daybreak.
The bill will face a rougher ride in the evenly divided Senate, where passage is far from guaranteed, and West Virginia Sen. Joe Mancin — a moderate Democrat — has already expressed misgivings about the tax-credit measure.
The proposal is a major concern for automakers in both Canada and Mexico. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland on Wednesday warned it could become "the dominant issue" of the Canada-U.S. relationship.
But it wasn't the only sore spot: Trudeau said he directly raised concerns about the administration's strident Buy American protectionist policies, as well as the cross-border Line 5 oil pipeline, which Michigan is trying to shut down.
He made the remarks following what he called an "extremely effective" trilateral summit at the White House with Biden and his Mexican counterpart, Andrés Manuel López Obrador — the first so-called Three Amigos summit since 2016.
Trudeau was noncommittal when asked whether the federal government would consider a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, which Biden said earlier was something he was considering.
The trilateral summit between Trudeau, Biden and López Obrador unfolded in the ornate East Room of the White House.
Seated at a large oval table with Biden on one side and Trudeau and López Obrador safely physically distanced on the other, they each spoke of prioritizing the physical and economic health of their shared continent and respective residents.
"Our North American vision for the future draws on our shared strengths, as well as three vibrant democracies with dynamic populations and economies, wishing to work together," Biden said.
"We can meet today and we can meet all the challenges, if we just take the time to speak to one another, by working together."
Trudeau thanked Biden for playing host and described himself as being among friends with a shared priority of "ending" COVID-19 and ensuring strong supply chains between all three countries.
"We are three countries with extremely strong ties between our people, with our values and visions for the future strongly united," he said.
He described the USMCA as a "world-class" deal that protects workers' rights and allows all three countries to work together on the climate crisis.
Canada and Mexico agreed to redistribute millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses they received from the United States to other Western Hemisphere countries.
Biden is also reviving a North American working group on violence against Indigenous women and girls, an initiative Trudeau announced with former U.S. president Barack Obama in Ottawa in 2016.
The three leaders also plan to strengthen their united effort to address the migration crisis that has seen millions of asylum seekers from Central America crashing Mexico's borders. Venezuela's economic and political crisis is expected to produce six million refugees by the end of the year.
Canada is expected to be added to the U.S.-Mexico supply chain working group to make it a North America-wide effort aimed at minimizing future disruptions for the continent. The new working group will look at defining essential industries, including critical minerals.
Trudeau used his first day in Washington on Wednesday to talk up Canada's competitive advantage on critical minerals, which are used in batteries for computers, cellphones, electric vehicles and other essential items.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2021.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said the U.S. was planning a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics.