Canada’s ambassador to the United States says she’s seen a change of tone in how Washington views its northern ally’s commitment to defence thanks to a slew of new investments — reducing a potential thorny point of discussion ahead of this week’s presidential visit to Ottawa.
U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday will make his first trip to Canada since being sworn into office over two years ago, sitting down with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to discuss a range of issues before addressing Parliament.
North American defence is sure to be a top priority for the summit after the recent flight of a Chinese spy balloon over the continent last month and incursions by China and Russia in the Arctic, along with Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.
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But after years of calls from Washington for Canada to meet its defence spending obligations and modernize its military, Ambassador Kirsten Hillman says she’s beginning to see a shift.
“There is no doubt that the U.S. will always be looking to Canada and other allies to do as much as they can,” she told Mercedes Stephenson on The West Block Sunday.
“But I have noticed that, as we have made our announcements with respect to the investments in NORAD modernization, the purchase of the F-35s, the fact that we are now in the middle of another defence policy review … I think it’s changed the tone from where I sit in Washington to a pretty important degree.”
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The federal government has committed nearly $40 billion in investments over the next 20 years to modernize NORAD, something Canada’s military brass and Defence Minister Anita Anand pointed to as crucial in the wake of the Chinese spy balloon and the subsequent detection and shootdown of three other unidentified objects over North American airspace in February.
However, it remains unclear how much of that spending is actually new money.
Among the first priorities that are being fast-tracked is over-the-horizon radar systems, which will broaden NORAD’s surveillance capabilities further north and detect modern foreign threats in the Arctic.
Hillman suggested a continued focus on the Arctic will further strengthen Canada-U.S. relations when it comes to defence.
“The Arctic is a really important contribution that we can make to the continental defence that other partners are less able to make,” she said. “So I think focusing in on that, as we’re doing, makes a lot of sense and is deeply appreciated by the Americans.”
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Yet the Canadian Armed Forces is also facing a personnel crisis and recruitment challenge that has stretched the military thin between its commitments to Ukraine and NATO.
Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre has said the lack of capacity would make it “challenging” to deploy a new mission to somewhere like Haiti, which has become engulfed in gang violence — another top priority for Trudeau and Biden to discuss as pressure grows for Canada to lead a security mission there.
Trudeau has repeatedly said “outside intervention” won’t lead to long-term stability in the country and that Canada is focused on supporting local police and sanctioning those who enable the gangs, which Hillman reiterated.
“We talk with the Americans about the situation in Haiti, if not every day, several times a week,” she said.
“At this point, what we’re focusing on — and this is because of what the Haitians are telling us — is that what they really need is for their police services to be properly trained to deal with the security situation. That’s where we’re focusing. That’s what we’re talking to the U.S. about and other partners in the region who would help us in that.”
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Asked if sending an RCMP mission to Haiti was a possibility, Hillman said it “might be,” but quickly added she could not speak on behalf of the police force or the military.
Safe Third Country Agreement up for discussion
Insecurity in countries like Haiti and many others has also sparked a global refugee crisis that has impacted both the U.S. and Canada and is being felt at their shared border.
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Quebec and federal Conservatives are calling for Ottawa to close the Roxham Road border crossing where more than 39,000 migrants were intercepted by RCMP last year, according to federal statistics — compared with 4,095 in 2021.
Republicans in the U.S., meanwhile, are highlighting a surge in encounters with people trying to cross the opposite way. U.S. statistics suggest the number of attempted illegal crossings into the U.S. from Canada has more than doubled.
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The Safe Third Country Agreement allows both Canada and the U.S. to turn away asylum claimants from a third country who try to make a claim for asylum at an official entry point. Trudeau has said the 2004 agreement should be renegotiated so migrants aren’t incentivized to cross irregularly into Canada, which Hillman says will be up for discussion with Biden this week.
“I think that we are in a place where we can talk to the U.S. administration, the Biden administration, about all the tools that we have” to address migration, she said.
“I think that the administration will be open and is open to talking about all those tools, including the Safe Third Country Agreement.”
Meanwhile, over two million migrants crossed into the U.S. from Mexico in the most recent fiscal year — something Hillman says further underscores the issue of hemispheric migration that should also be addressed.
“They will talk about the root causes of that migration, they will talk about these people that are in danger and whose lives are at risk,” she said. “Then they will talk about the implications of that for our borders, for the U.S. southern border and of course for the Canada-U.S. border and the Roxham Road situation, as well as other crossings where people come.”
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Finally, Hillman says continued cooperation on trade and economic opportunities for both countries will also be discussed, building on talks and agreements signed at the so-called “Three Amigos” summit earlier this year with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Despite a continued push by the Biden administration for so-called “Buy American” initiatives that prioritize U.S.-based manufacturing, Hillman says Canada is still being included on things like electric vehicle production and critical minerals.
Those Canadian-made materials will be eligible for tax incentives under the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, she said, but has prompted concerns that the incentives will make it difficult for Canada to attract investors in its own electrification and minerals strategies.
“I think one of our big messages to the Americans next week is going to be, this is good, but let’s make sure we’re doing it in a way that moves us both forward as much as possible, as fast as possible, and isn’t a sort of zero-sum game where we try and outcompete each other,” she said.