It was an eagerly anticipated match, pitting a self-described feminist who has welcomed more than 40,000 Syrian refugees to his country against a president who once bragged about grabbing women and has sought to crack down on immigration.
But anyone expecting Justin Trudeau to stand up to Donald Trump probably came away disappointed on Monday, as the Canadian prime minister met with the new president for the first time.
“The last thing Canadians expect is for me to come down and lecture another country on how they choose to govern themselves,” Trudeau told reporters at a joint press conference, after standing by as Trump gave an unapologetic defence of his controversial travel ban.
Trudeau continued: “My role, our responsibility, is to continue to govern in a such a way that reflects Canadians’ approach and be a positive example in the world.”
Although some might have longed for Trudeau to stake out the moral high ground – on Trump’s travel ban, his casual misogyny or his bullying rhetoric against allies such as Mexico – Monday’s meeting was always going to focus on cold economic realities.
Since the inauguration, Canadian officials have taken every opportunity possible to point to the economic growth – and millions of jobs – which depend on cross-border trade.
And in terms of cold realpolitik, the tactic seemed to have paid off: Trump praised the countries’ economic ties and implicitly contrasted warm relations with Canada with the festering diplomatic crisis with Mexico.
“We have a very outstanding trade relationship with Canada. We’ll be tweaking it,” Trump told reporters. “It’s a much less severe situation than what’s taking place on the southern border. On the southern border, for many, many years the transaction was not fair to the United States.”
Since Trump’s shock election victory, Trudeau has consistently refrained from directly criticising the president. “It is not the job of a Canadian prime minister to opine on the American electoral process,” he told reporters last month when asked if he thought Trump was a misogynist.
Analysts point to the Canadian economy to explain his reluctance to take aim at Trump; three-quarters of Canada’s exports go to the US and roughly 2.5 million Canadian jobs depend on American trade.
Trudeau has instead relied on more subtle means to highlight the differences between Washington and Ottawa. Amid the chaos and uncertainty created by Trump’s travel ban, Trudeau fired off a tweet highlighting that Canada stood ready to welcome those “fleeing persecution, terror & war…regardless of your faith”
Another tweet simply showed the prime minister greeting a Syrian refugee at the Toronto airport, with the hashtag #BienvenueAuCanada – welcome to Canada.
Monday’s visit also offered a jarring juxtaposition as Trudeau – whose gender- balanced cabinet made headlines around the world – joined forces with Trump to launch a council dedicated to improving opportunities for women in the workforce.
While the idea originated from Trudeau’s office, gender equality was portrayed as an area of mutual interest, despite the fact that Trump’s has nominated just four women for senior administration positions. One of Trump’s first orders banned international NGOs from providing abortion services or offering information about abortions if they receive US funding.
“I just want to say, Mr Prime Minister, that I’m focused and you’re focused on the important role women play in our economies,” said Trump, who in 2005 told a reporter that he did not change diapers. “We must work to address the barriers faced by women and women entrepreneurs, including access to capital, access to markets and very importantly access to networks,” he added.
Many observers pointed to other subtle shows of difference during Monday’s visit. Much was made of the leaders’ first handshake, in which Trudeau held his ground as Trump seemingly attempted to pull the prime minister towards him.
Others pointed to Trudeau’s use of French throughout the press conference; Trump is not known to speak any foreign languages.
Trudeau also used the press conference to highlight the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who have been brought to Canada in the past year or so without any compromise to the country’s security.
“Relationship between neighbours are pretty complex,” Trudeau noted at one point. “And we won’t always agree on everything.”