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Harper and Obama talk Afghanistan, economy and hockey

U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper meet in the Oval Office on Sept. 16, 2009.


President Barack Obama said he knows that Buy American requirements irk Canada, but offered Prime Minister Stephen Harper only vague assurances Wednesday that he will push "efforts to make sure that these sources of tension diminish."

Canadian officials travelling with the Prime Minister - who spent nearly 90 minutes with the President in the Oval Office - hailed Mr. Obama's comments but could point to no concrete progress on removing the Buy American provisions that have effectively shut Canadian businesses out of the hundreds of billions in stimulus spending being funnelled to state and local governments in the United States.

"Prime Minister Harper, I want to emphasize, has brought this up with me every single time we've met, so he's been on the job on this issue," Mr. Obama said, adding that despite Canadian anger over Buy American, its actual impact is minor when compared with the nearly $2-billion-a-day two-way trade.

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Let's "keep things in perspective," the President said: "There is no prospect of any budding trade wars between our two countries."

Mr. Harper, who will visit congressional leaders Thursday on Capitol Hill - where there is little inclination and no domestic political reward for stripping out Buy American requirements - echoed the President's assessment.

The problems caused by Buy American are "relatively small compared to the overall scale of Canadian-American trade," he conceded, but kept up the pressure on the President for a fix.

"These are important irritants; they are having some real impacts," Mr. Harper said.

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Trade negotiators from both countries are expected to grapple with the issue in the next few weeks. Canadian officials travelling with the Prime Minister said they hoped for a deal by the end of the year, although they acknowledged that much of the stimulus package will be spent by then.

Ottawa has offered to let U.S. firms bid on provincial and municipal contracts currently off-limits behind Buy Canadian provisions in a swap for stripping out the Buy American provisions.

In Ottawa, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff was unimpressed that Mr. Harper had won only a vague promise from the President. "You can't conceal the fact that there are no results here," Mr. Ignatieff said.

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But Mr. Harper, an avid hockey fan, scored on another bilateral irritant that could have wreaked havoc with the opening of the National Hockey League season.

The Prime Minister claimed "agreement in principle" on resolving a nasty spat that threatened to ground charter flights carrying sports teams. "We're working to finalize that in the next few days," he said.

On Afghanistan, Mr. Obama paid tribute to the "extraordinary sacrifices of the Canadian military" in Kandahar and then ducked questions about whether he would ask a recalcitrant Ottawa to stay in the fight beyond 2011.

"I'm not worried about what will happen post-2011," he said.

Whatever residual Canadian effort remains in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama said, "We'll make sure that the Canadian presence there fits into a coherent whole and that it's accomplishing our goals," which, he said, was "to eliminate al-Qaeda as a threat."

Mr. Harper left no doubt that he would reject any U.S. plea to keep fighting in what Mr. Obama, who has already sent tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan this year, calls a "war of necessity."

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"Canada's not leaving Afghanistan," the Prime Minister said, but Canada's war-fighting role will be replaced by a "civilian humanitarian development mission after 2011."

In a brief question-and-answer session in the Oval Office after the meeting, the Prime Minister stressed his access to Mr. Obama.

"Barack," he said, referring to the President by his first name, which is rare for even the closest of visiting leaders, "this is our seventh time, I think, in some form or another we've had a chance to discuss some of these issues, and we appreciate your time and, of course, both you and your country's alliance, neighbourliness, and friendship. It's our most important relationship in the world."

Mr. Ignatieff lampooned the meeting, which went far longer than the scheduled 42 minutes, as "amateur hour."

"We look like Boy Scouts down there. And you can't fix it in 42 minutes or an hour with the President," he said.

But Mr. Harper, trailed by three cabinet colleagues - Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, Environment Minister Jim Prentice and Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan - was keen to share the spotlight with the world's most popular politician, even if the Mr. Obama's approval numbers are sagging somewhat at home.

While the two-day visit has been largely ignored in the United States - as are the visits by all but a handful of the most prominent and important foreign leaders - protesters focused on Canadian issues dogged the trip.

Animal-rights activists - clad in white costumes splattered with red paint to portray baby seals - crawled around in front of the Canadian embassy to protest the annual seal hunt off Newfoundland. They were picked up, hauled off and handcuffed by police.

Outside the White House, environmental activists denounced Canada's oil sands - touted by proponents as a massive, politically stable, and geographically handy reservoir for America's huge energy demands - as a filthy, climate-wrecking, global-warming disaster. They want imported oil from the sands stopped.

"Tar-sands oil, the dirtiest oil on Earth, has no place in our clean-energy future," said Brant Olson, director of the tar-sands campaign for the Rainforest Action Network.

But the oil sands also have powerful friends in America.

"Canada is among our most important economic and strategic partners and a critical supplier of secure, affordable energy to American consumers; indeed, we get more of our energy from Canada than any other country in the world," said David Holt, president of Consumer Energy Alliance, an alliance of big energy producers and consumers.

With reports from Jane Taber and Campbell Clark in Ottawa

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