The canned political communication that emerges from Canadian-American bilateral visits like the brief and much-anticipated sojourn U.S. President Joe Biden made to Ottawa this week tends to emphasize the historic and monumental.
There’s the 8,891-kilometre (or, if you prefer, 5,525-mile) border that dissolves in the warm glow of family and friendship ties, trade, manufacturing and cultural overlap. There’s the long history of warm connection between the two nations, their people and their leaders. And there’s the track record of shared priorities and values, with America and its mild-mannered hat facing the world united on so many fronts.
Each of those notions forms a Mad Libs category that any communique about a Prime Ministerial-Presidential meeting will dutifully check off. (Also, you are required by unspoken international law to mention hockey in a bit of smack talk theatre. And even though they absolutely know it’s coming, the Canadians will applaud with delight like drunken seals, for we are an easily flattered people.)
But while the political spin lines are always about great, big things carved on the scale of decades, it’s the quotidian, human-sized elements that give a presidential visit its true scale.
Because Our Lady of Perpetual Lateness is apparently not only the patron saint of the Prime Minister’s Office, but also the White House, Mr. Biden was delayed arriving on Parliament Hill on Friday morning. The extra 40 minutes only offered more time for everyone to get worked up.
Small armies of House of Commons pages and visitor guides, dressed like Hogwarts prefects who transferred to Harvard Business School, rustled industriously up and down staircases. The less young-and-earnest were no more nonchalant about the day. Everywhere, halls and doorways were clogged with knots of security guards, political staffers and journalists, hovering and watching.
Shortly before Mr. Biden’s scheduled arrival, just outside the room where the welcoming ceremony would take place, a staff member vacuumed a red carpet between rows of pristine Canadian and American flags, because of course you tidy up before a big guest arrives.
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Once Mr. Biden finally arrived, he strode with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau across that freshly vacuumed carpet to a waiting receiving line of elected officials.
No one is cool when they meet the President of the United States. You might not care or find the giddiness embarrassing, or you might even possess some antipathy toward this person and the institution they represent. But when your turn comes, there you are with a face-splitting grin, trying to say something that will convey exactly who you are without seeming too desperate, like a contestant on The Bachelor climbing out of the limousine on the first night, hoping to make a winning impression.
For Pierre Poilievre, this meant introducing himself in a grand tone as “The leader of His Majesty’s loyal Opposition.” Mr. Biden asked, with amused surprise, “Loyal opposition?” Mr. Poilievre replied, “Absolutely. We believe opposition is an act of loyalty.” He looked pleased with himself afterward.
Since Mr. Biden last visited in 2016, when he was Barack Obama’s vice-president, Parliament Hill’s Centre Block closed for restorations that will last so long that no one even talks about the completion date. So Mr. Trudeau welcomed the President to the architectural equivalent of the hot plate where you cook dinner in your basement while your kitchen is being renovated. It’s an extremely nice hot plate, to be sure, in the form of a beautifully sky-lit temporary House of Commons, but the whole thing is basically an immersive museum exhibit on Canadian parliamentary democracy.
Still, Mr. Biden liked it, and the audience to his speech in the House of Commons very much liked that he liked it. “I’m honoured to have the opportunity to uphold a tradition carried out by so many of my predecessors in addressing the hallowed halls of the Canadian democracy. Although this is a different hall,” he said, looking around. “You’ve done a hell of a job here. This is really beautiful.”
The MPs on the floor and the capacity crowd packed into the public galleries chuckled appreciatively.
A few minutes before Mr. Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, Mr. Trudeau and his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau walked into the House of Commons (prompting an MP to yelp, “There he is!” with the exact same energy as a kindergarten kid calling “Hi!” to a parent from the stage during a school play), a tiny private moment had morphed into something larger.
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This temporary House of Commons offers a strange capacity for intimate moments over great distances, because the open bowl design and bright daylight streaming in through the glass roof make it easy to see people with crystal clarity.
Down on the front row government benches, directly behind the chair Mr. Biden was about to occupy, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland looked up at the public gallery directly across from her, spotted Michael Kovrig and waved. Mr. Kovrig, who spent more than 1,000 days imprisoned in China along with Michael Spavor in what was widely seen as crass hostage diplomacy, waved back, then the two exchanged bows.
Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly, sitting beside Ms. Freeland, joined in, as did Mr. Spavor, who was sitting beside Mr. Kovrig. It was still just a moment where four people in a very large room managed to make eye contact and exchange mimed greetings.
Then, seemingly all at once, the hundreds of people filling the rest of the room noticed this current of attention directed at the two former prisoners of Beijing. The entire room rose in a prolonged standing ovation that did not seem to be eclipsed even later by the ecstatic enthusiasm that greeted Mr. Biden.