It was a classic bait and switch.
Justin Trudeau arrived at the White House Monday to meet Donald Trump along with a delegation of prominent Canadian female executives. It was billed as a roundtable discussion about women in the work force. The two countries issued a joint statement, pledging to remove barriers facing women in business, and they announced the creation of the United States-Canada Council for the Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders. The roundtable idea, apparently pitched to the White House by the Trudeau government, was a natural for both sides.
Mr. Trudeau calls himself a feminist and has championed gender equality, starting with his own cabinet, half of whom are women.
It was also a way to involve Mr. Trump's eldest daughter, Ivanka, in the discussions. Ms. Trump, who sat next to Mr. Trudeau at the meeting, has talked about the importance of maternity leave and child care on the campaign trail.
But as the Prime Minister and U.S. President sat around a large boardroom table, it quickly became clear what the women really wanted to talk about – more trade, open borders and continental integration, than gender equality.
They are all the same issues that have preoccupied so many Canadian business people – female and male alike – since the election of the overtly protectionist Mr. Trump.
If the game plan was to deftly shift the discussion from issues such as pay equity and female entrepreneurship to supply chains, it worked flawlessly.
Mr. Trudeau was obviously eager put Canada's spin on trade issues. And he found a room full of persuasive surrogates adept at speaking the U.S. President's language.
Dawn Farrell, chief executive of Calgary-based electrical utility TransAlta Corp., pointed out that her company's greatest strengths are its operations in both countries and the free flow of employees across the border.
Monique Leroux, chairwoman of Investissement Québec, pointed out that she sits on the boards of several companies with "significant operations in both countries," including convenience store giant Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. of Laval, the world's largest convenience store operator.
And Linda Hasenfratz, chief executive of auto parts maker Linamar Corp., was anxious to tell to Mr. Trump that the company has doubled its U.S. work force in the past five years.
In case Mr. Trump missed the not-so-subtle message, Mr. Trudeau doubled down as the media were being escorted from the room. Mr. Trudeau pointedly told Mr. Trump that key sectors, particularly autos, depend on the free flow of goods. And he cited the example of parts that may cross the Canada-U.S. border several times before final vehicle assembly.
The roundtable was a stroke of diplomatic genius. Get the target's attention and talk his language, without whining or confrontation.
It's far too early to tell what will come of it.
Mr. Trump's rhetoric has been all about putting "America first," rewriting the rules of trade in its own interests and repatriating millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs from other countries. Mr. Trump has also called the North American free-trade agreement "the worst trade deal … in the history of the world" and a "catastrophe" for U.S. workers and companies.
But during an afternoon news conference alongside Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Trump seemed more conciliatory – at least when it comes to trade with Canada. He mostly kept the protectionist rhetoric in check. He talked about "reciprocal trade," protecting jobs "in our hemisphere" and "tweaking" NAFTA. Mr. Trump also drew a clear distinction between the country's trade with Canada and Mexico, implying that he has no particular issues with his northern neighbour.
The language seemed straight out of the standard State Department briefing book on Canada. Mr. Trump talked about being neighbours, friends and allies, about co-operating, and making the border work better for both countries.
These are soothing words to Canadian ears.
The proof, of course, depends on what comes next. The four-page joint statement makes no mention of renegotiating NAFTA, a proposed border-adjustment tax or biometric scanning of all travellers – even though the Trump administration appears determined to do all of these.
For a day, at least, Canada seemed to be winning the war of words, and ideas.