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The Globe and Mail

Canadians hold centre stage at White House state dinner

Actor Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively arrive at a State Dinner in honor of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House in Washington on March 10, 2016.


Before Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains saw Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds at the White House state dinner, he didn't know what to expect.

"I must confess, in real life," Mr. Bains said, pausing for effect, "he's got big muscles."

"He's an intimidating guy."

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Intimidating, but grateful: Mr. Bains said the Vancouver-born movie star, who attended the dinner with his wife, Blake Lively, met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and told him he was proud to be Canadian and thrilled to be there.

Mr. Bains, smiling but bleary-eyed, was speaking the day after the historic event hosted by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. Between the dinner, the after-party on the rooftop of Washington's posh W Hotel, and official meetings and events, Mr. Bains estimated he'd only had about an hour's sleep.

But, like most of the 22-member Canadian delegation, he was still wired from the night before.

At the dinner, Mr. Bains sat at one of the round tables in the White House's stately east room beside Lisa Monaco, the president's homeland security and counterterrorism adviser.

As they dined on lamb chops and maple pecan cake, the two talked about their respective portfolios of economy and security, but also discussed the lighter, but no less important subjects, of family and golf.

"It was really a special evening," Mr. Bains said.

Mr. Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau's three-day visit to Washington included an official welcoming ceremony on the White House lawn and a state luncheon.

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But the state dinner was the apex of hospitality.

The first for a Canadian Prime Minister in 19 years, it was a dinner party with the most powerful people in the world, at one of the grandest residences in the world, where Canadians held the attention of a nation – if only for a night.

"There are parts of [a] visit like this that are undeniably fun," Mr. Trudeau said Friday, speaking at the Center for American Progress luncheon in the Mayflower Hotel.

"Last night's state dinner was just wonderful. It was a coming together of friends who have much in common, much to celebrate. And not just at the head table, but across and throughout the room."

At the dinner itself, Mr. Trudeau toasted Mr. Obama "on behalf of 36 million Americans," which a top official from his office says was an accident.

"He meant to say Canadians," Mr. Trudeau's principal secretary Gerald Butts told The Globe and Mail.

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U.S. Ambassador Bruce Heyman and his wife, Vicki, sat at a table with Canada's ambassador to the U.S., David MacNaughton, and his wife, Leslie Noble.

"It was warm, magical, the energy was palpable," Ms. Heyman said. "Just a lot of love in the room, and respect and admiration and history."

Ms. Heyman, who wore a navy and floral Oscar de la Renta gown, said guests spent a lot of time mingling between tables.

She added that there was a "multigenerational" feel to the dinner, with Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau's parents and Margaret Trudeau in attendance, as well as Mr. Obama's girls, Malia and Sasha.

"There was a wonderful familial connection," she said.

The head table included the leaders and their wives, as well as actor Michael J. Fox and his wife Tracy Pollan. Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels sat at a nearby table beside Malia Obama and Canadian actress Sandra Oh.

On his way into the dinner, Mr. Fox told reporters, "It's terrific that our countries have a fresh start. It's nice to see."

When asked about Mr. Trudeau, he said, "He's cool."

"I was a fan of his dad. When I was a kid, I used to say we had the coolest world leader going. His son is pretty cool, too."

Word has it that members of the Prime Minister's inner circle were even taken into the Oval Office for a private tour with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough.

Mr. Reynolds and Ms. Lively were in the front row for the evening's entertainment in the purple-lit state dining room, which featured American singer Sara Bareilles and young women from Washington's Children of the Gospel Choir. As the group's powerful voices filled the space, Ms. Obama moved to the music in her chair, and gave the girls high-fives on their way out.

At the state department luncheon earlier in the day hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry, Montreal-bred singer Rufus Wainwright serenaded guests at the piano with three songs, including Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, which was Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau's wedding song.

Mathieu Bouchard, a senior adviser in the PMO, said he was "impressed" with the luncheon, particularly in seeing the antechamber beforehand, which contained President Thomas Jefferson's desk and the 1973 Paris peace accord.

"You see the importance that they place on preserving institutional history," he said.

Mr. Bouchard said it was inspiring to see how the Americans look beyond partisan lines when it comes to history, noting that two former Republican secretaries of state, Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger, sat at the head table during the luncheon, beside Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau.

"How often do you see that in Canada?" he said.

"Despite the fact that their politics are much more divisive than ours, they treat the functions with more respect."

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