Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Over beers with reporters on a government flight back from the Paris climate-change summit in December, Justin Trudeau joked that he had to "pinch myself" when he was around U.S. President Barack Obama.
In power for less than two months, the rookie Prime Minister had already met Mr. Obama at two international summits, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Manila where the President personally invited Mr. Trudeau to a state dinner at the White House.
Much has been made of the fact that Jean Chrétien was the last Canadian prime minister to be feted at a glitzy White House dinner, in 1997.
But in many ways, it's no surprise that Mr. Trudeau got the cherished invitation. Many of Mr. Obama's key electoral operatives worked on the Liberal election campaign. Mr. Trudeau adopted the President's sunny optimism as a campaign theme and shares his passion to combat climate change.
Bruce Heyman, the U.S. ambassador to Canada and a friend of Mr. Obama, said the President sees a younger version of himself in Mr. Trudeau. Both are social progressives with a do-gooder desire to change the world. In several phone calls with Mr. Trudeau, the President encouraged him to spend as much time as possible with his young family, even joking that Mr. Trudeau's wavy hair will turn grey from the demands of decision-making.
"I was in the Oval House with the President in December," Mr. Heyman said. "He made the remark with a big smile on his face and he said, 'I noted how grey my hair has become during this process so I pointed that out to the Prime Minister.' So he said it with that smile that you know he had a really good sense about the person."
When David MacNaughton, Canada's new ambassador to Washington, met the President in the Oval Office last week, Mr. Obama spoke glowingly about the two leaders' shared commitment to tackle global warming, an issue former prime minister Stephen Harper showed little interest in.
Mr. Obama's view of the world did not mesh with that of Mr. Harper. Relations became so strained over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that the Harper government resorted to freezing out Mr. Heyman.
"He [President Obama] obviously emphasized the importance of Canada's role and our relationship with the United States and how pleased he was the Prime Minister is making a commitment to renew and refresh the relationship." Mr. MacNaughton said. "Obviously they have a lot in common in terms of values and how they see the world."
Two months ago, President Obama ordered cabinet secretaries and top officials to engage Canada in setting out an ambitious agenda for Thursday's White House meeting. The leaders will make announcements on a continental environmental strategy, measures to ease the flow of travellers and trade across the border and a commitment to avoid another softwood-lumber trade war.
The White House discussions will likely begin with an overview of global tensions – the battle against Islamic State; Russian aggression in Ukraine; Iran; North Korea; and China's economic woes. The President is not expected to bring up Canada's pullout of the U.S.-led air war against Islamic State. American officials said Mr. Obama is "comfortable" with Mr. Trudeau's decision to triple Canadian special-forces trainers and increase intelligence-gathering in the region.
The two leaders will likely discuss the upcoming Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in late March and who will play host to this year's North American Leaders' Summit. Canada was supposed to host last year but Stephen Harper delayed the meeting over the Keystone pipeline dispute. U.S. officials said Mr. Obama is keen to act as host as one of his last official roles. Expect Mr. Trudeau to issue an invitation to the President to visit Canada before his term expires on Jan. 20, 2017.
On global trade, U.S. officials say the President will push Mr. Trudeau to be more forthcoming in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The Prime Minister has hedged on whether he would implement the 12-nation deal, saying he wants to first hold public consultations. The two are also likely to discuss the Canada-European Union free-trade deal and U.S. plans to secure a similar trade pact with Europe.
After the Oval Office talks and joint Trudeau-Obama news conference in the Rose Garden, Secretary of State John Kerry is throwing a lunch in the ornate Benjamin Franklin Room at the State Department for the Prime Minister and Canadian and American cabinet ministers and prominent business executives on both sides of the border.
The state dinner, though, is the highlight of Mr. Trudeau's official visit. The guest list will be kept secret until hours before the event gets under way.
"The state dinner is a celebration. It's a party. It's a dinner," Mr. Heyman said. "This is a dinner that is recognizing the importance of Canada."
TJonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS
The leaders are expected to announce a slew of climate-change initiatives as part of a broad continental climate-change strategy, including work on stricter standards for heavy-duty vehicles, greater cross-border trade in clean electricity and fostering investment in other green-technology innovations such as electric cars. They are expected to slash methane emissions – many times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas – from the oil and gas industry by 40 per cent. With Arctic ice melting at an alarming rate, the strategy will include measures to bring solar and wind power to remote communities dependent on diesel fuel, which produces black-carbon soot. The leaders will promise climate-adaptation measures to protect sensitive Arctic marine areas and lay out a process for mapping of shipping lanes and commercial fishing.
The goal of these talks is to begin a continental collaboration on new clean technologies and to set North American environmental standards on fracking, water use, methane emissions and black carbon.
Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Officials from both countries have been working on a new border pact that includes an integrated Canada-U.S. entry/exit tracking system between law-enforcement agencies and measures to reduce red tape for shippers, such as preclearance at manufacturing plants in Canada. The plan will likely involve an extension of customs preclearance at more airports, such as Toronto Island and Quebec City, and expanding the trusted-traveller program to include trusted employees. Expect new cross-border measures to harmonize environmental and food standards.
Conservative MP Jason Kenney said these are leftover measures from the previous government. The former Harper government announced a Beyond the Border strategy when Barack Obama visited Canada in 2009. Many of these measures, such as exit/entry tracking, were delayed as relations broke down over the Keystone pipeline.
Improving border security and easing the flow of travellers and goods have been a long-standing goal of both countries since the Canada-U.S. free-trade deal in 1988 and the North American free-trade agreement in 1993. Open and secure borders are particularly important to Canada's economic interests because 75 per cent of the country's trade is southward-bound, compared to 19 per cent of U.S. exports destined for Canada.
Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Talks have been under way on striking a new softwood lumber deal since Justin Trudeau first raised the issue with Mr. Obama in Manila last November. Canadian lumber exports to the United States amount to $6-billion annually. The 2006 softwood lumber agreement expired in October, but there's a one-year grace period before U.S. companies and Congress can file lawsuits and table punitive legislation, claiming Canadian lumber producers are unfairly subsidized through cheap access to public land. It's unlikely a deal can be reached at the White House on Thursday, but there is a possibility that special envoys could be handed responsibility for finding a solution.
Alex Panetta/THE CANADIAN PRESS
What won’t be talked about
One thing that likely will not surface in the Oval Office is the cancelled Keystone pipeline project. Both leaders are happy to leave the issue dead. Country-of-origin labelling for beef and pork also won't be on the table. Legislation has been passed in Congress to eliminate separate packaging for Canadian and Mexican meat.