Skip to main content

Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada seen buttoning his jacket while walking through Lafayette Square across from the White House after a television interview during on his first trip to Washington DC. He was in DC attending a policy conference held by The Center for American Progress where he sat on a panel titled "Global Perspectives" with former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

On his own count, Justin Trudeau has visited 87 countries, but Canada's well-travelled Liberal Leader had never been to Washington.

By mid-afternoon Thursday, on his first day in the U.S. capital, Mr. Trudeau was in the West Wing, meeting with senior Obama administration officials, including Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, and Jason Furman, who chairs the President's Council of Economic Advisors.

That's hardly an Oval Office audience, and represents a not-unusual level of access for the visiting leader of a major political party from an important ally, but it still signalled an arrival on the international stage for Mr. Trudeau.

Sitting on a park bench for an interview with the White House as backdrop, Mr. Trudeau made it clear he was delighted. His comments ranged widely from bilateral relations to the need for Canada to play a bigger role in the Middle East to finding new roles for the Canadian Forces to intervene constructively around the world.

The one thing he would not talk about was Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"The one thing I'm not going to do is air the many grievances I have with the Prime Minister when I'm on a foreign visit," he said of Mr. Harper, who has been under fire in the House of Commons all week over the Senate spending scandal.

Nor would he be drawn to comment on whether Stephen Harper's blunt assertion that Ottawa will not "take no for an answer," should Mr. Obama reject the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

"For me to criticize my Prime Minister while I'm on a foreign visit is just not the way I was raised," said Mr. Trudeau, who is a staunch supporter of the pipeline that would funnel Alberta oil-sands crude to the global markets offered by Texas and Louisiana refineries.

But Keystone XL, the long-delayed, $5.3-billion outlet for Canada's vast reserves – reviled by environmentalists as the world's filthiest, carbon-laden oil – is never far away from any visiting Canadian.

Mr. Trudeau was asked about it on Thursday morning at a conference of progressives sponsored by the Center for American Progress that included prominent opponents of the project. Former U.S. vice-president Al Gore told the conference the pipeline "is a threat to our future" and should be blocked. Mr. Trudeau's backing for Keystone XL did not lead to any public debate during his session.

Flanked by proven political heavyweights Madeleine Albright, U.S. secretary of state during the Clinton administration, and Julia Gillard, Australia's first female prime minister, Mr. Trudeau also repeated a familiar message, saying progressives must find ways to deliver real prosperity to the middle class.

Later, Mr. Trudeau reflected on how Canada could, and should, play a more assertive role in international affairs.

"We need to do more in terms of bringing the Palestinians and the Arab states in general to a productive place in negations," he said, adding: "We need to continue to be steadfast in our friendship and support of Israel, the only true democracy in the region … but also we have a responsibility and an opportunity to engage" with the Arab world.

He also said he hoped to reverse the near-disappearance of Canadian troops from international peacekeeping, although he acknowledges that the old model from the Cold War would not work in 21st-century conflicts.

"When states were at war with each other, you could line up Canadians [in between as peacekeepers] and nobody would shoot through them. That's far from what global security issues are now, but I know there's a role for Canada and that we need to be present, and leaders, on the world stage," he said. "There are places around the world where, because of our history, where we can intervene, where we can be present on the ground in a much more helpful and constructive way than other countries with Imperialist or colonial baggage."

But he also said no new era of Canadian activism could ellipse the reality that the Canada-U.S. relationship trumps all else on Ottawa's foreign policy agenda.

"There is only a handful of really big issues that a Canadian prime minister needs to get right, and a productive, positive relationship with the U.S. is one of them," he said.

Mr. Trudeau will meet on Friday morning with Gary Doer, Canada's ambassador to the United States, who is spearheading the Keystone XL fight. He will meet with leaders of Emily's List, an organization promoting the election of pro-choice Democrat women, before a lunch at the Brookings Institution, an influential think tank.

Interact with The Globe