OTTAWA — U.S. President Barack Obama will pay a working visit to Ottawa on Feb. 19, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday.
“This is a testament not just to the size of our trading relationship and the closeness of our alliance, but also the strength of our friendship and I look forward to an important and productive working visit,” Harper told the House of Commons.
Obama and Harper spoke by telephone last week to begin crafting an agenda. As expected, the economy will top the list.
Harper has expressed hope he and Obama can make progress on a joint energy and climate change plan for North America. The ongoing NATO-led military mission in Afghanistan, to which the U.S. will add 30,000 troops this year, will also be discussed.
Few details of the trip were released in Ottawa or Washington, where the president’s first foreign travel was announced as part of a regular White House briefing.
A senior official with the prime minister’s office said Obama will only visit Ottawa, and he will not stay overnight, arriving in the morning and leaving that evening.
The visit will be all work and no play.
“It will maximize meeting time and minimize ceremonial time,” the official said, speaking on a not-for-attribution basis.
The official said he does not expect an opportunity for the public to see or hear Obama. The visit comes in a week when the House of Commons is not scheduled to be in session, making an address to Parliament by the 44th president unlikely.
The prime minister and president may hold a joint news conference, as Harper has done with many visiting leaders.
Obama’s decision to make Canada the destination of his first foreign trip is a return to a tradition of sorts for U.S. presidents, after George W. Bush made Mexico his first foreign destination eight years ago. Harper said Wednesday that Canadians are “delighted” with Obama’s decision to come to Canada first.
“Canada is a vitally important ally. The president looks forward to the opportunity to speak with Prime Minister Harper and visit our neighbour to the north,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Against the backdrop of the global economic downturn, Canada and the U.S. face ongoing challenges, particularly congestion at their border, sparked by post-9/11 security measures, that have mired the flow of goods in red-tape.
In addition to being each other’s top trading partner, Canada is the U.S.’s largest supplier of crude oil and petroleum products.
Business leaders and policy experts are pressing Harper to deepen relations with popular new U.S. leader, and to bring big ideas to engage Obama.
Harper is keen to talk to Obama about a joint energy and environmental accord that would set common targets on greenhouse gas emissions, but would not penalize Alberta’s oilsands, which produce high levels of carbon, and were branded “dirty oil” by an Obama adviser last year.
Two weeks ago in an interview with the Calgary Herald, Harper acknowledged the “environmental challenges” facing the oilsands, but predicted they would remain “an important part of the U.S. energy supply for a long time to come.” Harper said he was sure that Obama would “come to realize that in short order.”
In Washington, Gibbs was asked whether bilateral trade would make up a significant part of the agenda during Obama’s visit.
“Without getting into what the bilateral agenda might be for that trip, I think it’s safe to say that the health of each economy, and the health of the global economy, will be a large part of that agenda,” Gibbs replied. “And I strongly anticipate — as was the case when (Obama) met with the leader of Mexico (before his inauguration) — that trade will be part of that docket.”
During the long race for the White House, Obama spoke of reopening the North American Free Trade Agreement’s environmental and labour provisions, which fuelled fears of protectionism in Canada.
Obama’s advisers later played down the anti-NAFTA rhetoric in meetings with Canadians diplomats.
With files from Sheldon Alberts, David Akin