Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Canada's Ambassador to the United States Kirsten Hillman during an interview in Ottawa on March 17.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Washington is anxious to see Ottawa update North America’s air defence, Canada’s ambassador to the United States says, ahead of the President’s first trip north of the border since taking office.

In an interview Friday, Kirsten Hillman, who is in Ottawa from her usual posting at Canada’s U.S. embassy to prepare for the talks, said air defence will be a key agenda item in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s meetings next week with President Joe Biden.

“I think they’d like to see it move faster,” Ms. Hillman said about Mr. Biden’s administration.

The White House and Prime Minister’s Office have released few details about the trip. A source with direct knowledge of the plans said that while Mr. Biden will arrive Thursday, the substantive events will take place Friday. Those are expected to include two meetings with Mr. Trudeau – one smaller one and another with a larger contingent of cabinet ministers and officials – an address to Parliament, a news conference and a large dinner on Friday evening.

The Globe and Mail is not identifying the source because they were not permitted to disclose the plans that are still being confirmed.

Last year, the federal government pledged $4.9-billion over six years to help upgrade North America’s air defence, to address the growing threat posed by hypersonic missiles and advanced cruise missile technology developed by China and Russia. At the time, Ottawa did not say how exactly – or how quickly – those funds would roll out.

“They’re very keen on ensuring that NORAD is fit for purpose,” Ms. Hillman told The Globe. NORAD (North American Aerospace Defence Command) is a bilateral organization responsible for air and maritime warning systems.

Canada is also committed to efforts to modernize its dated air defence systems, the ambassador said. Because the system is integrated between the two countries, she said, speeding up doesn’t depend solely on Canadian action.

Canada’s low defence spending and consistently slow pace of military investments is a perennial issue in its relationship with the U.S. In the past two years, Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, General Wayne Eyre, has publicly worried about the military’s readiness and capabilities, and NORAD’s Commander, General Glen VanHerck, has warned it is ill-prepared to defend against the new weapons developed by Russia and China.

Since 2006, NATO countries have set a defence spending target of 2 per cent of GDP, but Canada lags well behind that, as do many other allies. Numbers released by NATO estimate Canada’s spending at 1.27 per cent of GDP compared with 3.47 per cent from the U.S. and 2.12 per cent by the United Kingdom.

The issue has become only more pressing since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine last year. Even before that, however, U.S. presidents have used their visits to Canada to push the prime minister of the day to prioritize defence spending.

“We’ll be more secure when every NATO member, including Canada, contributes its full share to our common security,” then president Barack Obama told Parliament in June, 2016. “NATO needs more Canada.”

While U.S. presidents have always pushed Canada on its defence spending, Maryscott Greenwood, the chief executive officer of the Canadian American Business Council and a former U.S. diplomat in Ottawa, said the White House “wants it even more now.”

She said the Biden administration wants Canada to be active in modernizing NORAD: “The speed and the scale are both important.”

David Perry, a defence expert and president of Canadian Global Affairs Institute, a think tank, said Ms. Hillman’s comments point to American skepticism about Canada’s ability to convert its $4.9-billion promise to modernize NORAD into executed policy in the near term.

“Much of the NORAD radar system dates from the eighties, so it’s seriously old. If I were in the White House, I’d be hoping we could move with more alacrity than we usually muster,” Mr. Perry said.

He added that Canada has a lacklustre track record with swiftly modernizing infrastructure, which is where much of the new money for NORAD is supposed to go: “We’ll have new F-35s within a decade, if we don’t hustle we won’t have the infrastructure to operate them.”

In addition to defence, Ms. Hillman said she expects the green economy to be a major focus of the talks, notably access to critical minerals, the energy transition and electric vehicles. Those discussions dovetail with both energy security concerns spurred by Russia’s war in Ukraine, and Mr. Biden and Mr. Trudeau’s efforts to tackle climate change.

Last year the U.S. earmarked US$369-billion in tax breaks and other incentives to green the economy and slash emissions, in the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA. Canadian business groups have warned the hefty American subsidies risk their ability to compete, and the federal government has already pledged more measures in the March 28 budget.

But Ms. Hillman disputed the downside warned about by business groups, saying it’s not a “zero-sum game.”

“I don’t think we are threatened by the IRA,” she said, though acknowledging that “it changes the competitive environment.”

The ambassador said that while the scale of the U.S. subsidies are bigger than Canada’s, Washington is also playing “catch up” in an area that Ottawa has already been prioritizing. Moreover, she said the demand in the sectors being incentivized “is going to outstrip supply for a long time to come.”

With reports from Campbell Clark.

For subscribers: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe