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Prime Minister Jean Chretien, left, toasts U.S. President Bill Clinton during an official state dinner at the White House in 1997. The two leaders were known to be golfing buddies. (Win McNamee/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Jean Chretien, left, toasts U.S. President Bill Clinton during an official state dinner at the White House in 1997. The two leaders were known to be golfing buddies. (Win McNamee/REUTERS)

Ahead of state dinner, a look at previous president and prime minister relations Add to ...

When Pierre Trudeau went to Washington, he knew how to make a splash. Literally. He was the first, and only, visiting prime minister to ask to use the White House pool – which he did in 1969 before his first U.S. state dinner with Richard Nixon. He even capped it off with a sauna and a massage.

Now it is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s turn, and even though that particular pool is long gone – Mr. Nixon replaced it with a media briefing room, of all things – Mr. Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, are ready to dive in, in their own right.

“They’ll drive the country wild,” White House historian Bill Seale predicts.

On his second official Washington visit in 1977, Pierre Trudeau brought along his wife, Margaret, whose above-the-knee dress at the state dinner created quite the stir.

“The American people were upset about it. They thought it was undignified to go to a state dinner looking like that, like someone out of a dress shop,” Mr. Seale said.

“She was a big attention-getter, Margaret.” (Margaret Trudeau had her own response, which was essentially: Americans had no place in the closets of Canadians.)

Relations between Pierre Trudeau and Mr. Nixon were notoriously frosty. During his first visit, Pierre Trudeau made his now-famous remarks on Canada-U.S. relations: “Living with you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant: No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

By all accounts, Mr. Trudeau will not have to worry about offending President Barack Obama.

“Clearly, Obama and Justin [Trudeau] are on the same political map, and they appear to like each other,” said John English, a Pierre Trudeau biographer and director of The Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History at the University of Toronto. “Which definitely was not the case in Nixon’s case.”

For almost a century, Canadian prime ministers and the odd governor-general have travelled to Washington on official visits to meet with presidents to discuss issues of mutual interest, such as atomic energy, oil and gas exports, and the environment.

Relationships are forged, stogies are smoked and if you are lucky, a little work can get done.

This year, Mr. Trudeau is bringing along a diverse delegation from his cabinet: Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, and Fisheries and Oceans Minister Hunter Tootoo.

It is also an opportunity to showcase the strength of the Canada-U.S. relationship through formal events such as the state dinner – the highest diplomatic honour in the United States.

Some relationships are stronger, and more diplomatic, than others: Pierre Trudeau and Mr. Nixon were not known to be close – “Nixon did not like him,” Mr. English says – while Brian Mulroney got along well with Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and Jean Chrétien and Bill Clinton were golfing buddies.

Since 1927, the United States has hosted on average one official Canadian visit per decade, according to the White House Historical Association.

In 1945, William Lyon Mackenzie King talked atomic bombs with Harry Truman aboard the presidential yacht Sequoia; in 1960, John Diefenbaker and Dwight Eisenhower ate vanilla ice cream and promised to work as partners for international peace; 1977, Pierre Trudeau and Jimmy Carter – at one of the White House’s more informal state dinners – discussed Quebec’s possible separation from Canada; in 1986, Mr. Mulroney talked acid rain with Mr. Reagan, who joked about Mr. Mulroney’s impending 47th birthday; and in 1997, topics for Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Clinton ranged from endangered wildlife to trade, at a dinner three weeks after Mr. Clinton had surgery for a torn tendon in his knee.

But 1997 was the last time a Canadian leader was invited to the United States on an official visit – skipping the Stephen Harper era of the 2000s.

There is a now widespread belief that Mr. Harper and Mr. Obama had a not-so-warm relationship, said Allan Gotlieb, Canada’s ambassador to the United States from 1981 to 1989, no stranger to controversy himself after his wife, Sondra, slapped the embassy social secretary at a dinner they hosted the day after Mr. Mulroney’s state dinner in 1986.

“What you’re getting now is a strong signal from the White House, they don’t want chilly relations, they want close relations,” Mr. Gotlieb said.

The fact that Mr. Obama would propose an official visit immediately after last year’s federal election means “there’s no ambiguity about that,” he said.

“You’ve seen a change in U.S. position here.”

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