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How Justin Trudeau will try to bend Donald Trump’s ear in the coming weeks

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference with U.S. President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington in March, 2016, as part of a State Visit.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opened the hand of friendship to Republican presidential victor Donald Trump Wednesday, promising that the Liberal government will co-operate in bringing greater economic prosperity to the North American continent.

Mr. Trudeau said Wednesday the message coming out of the U.S. election is for politicians to address American economic insecurities that have been manifested by sluggish growth and rising protectionist sentiments.

"I am going to work with president-elect Trump's administration as we move forward in a positive way for not just Canadians and Americans, but the whole world," Mr. Trudeau told a group of about 16,000 students attending WE Day, an education event celebrating young people. "We have heard from Canadians and Americans that people want a fair shot of success, people want to know that their families, that their kids, their grandparents will be able to succeed."

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Mr. Trudeau was taken aback by Donald Trump's surprising victory, forcing the Liberal government to adopt a contingency strategy for a U.S. president who is highly protectionist and unclear in his global vision.

Despite the stunning upset, Mr. Trudeau is prepared to do what is necessary to advance Canada's interest with Mr. Trump and a Republican-led Congress.

"The relationship between Canada and the United States is based on shared values and shared hopes and dreams and we will always work well together," Mr. Trudeau said. "We want to build places where our middle class and those working hard to join it have a chance."

Top of mind is how the president-elect responds to the market meltdown and what assurances he can provide to the world that he can bring stability to the global economy.

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"As always happens after a new American president is elected, the world is going to be watching for good reason what his or her first moves are as president. It is a consequential job," a senior Trudeau official said.

Officials say Mr. Trudeau plans to sell an agenda of economic and global co-operation in a congratulatory phone call to Mr. Trump, including an invitation for the Republican victor to visit Canada soon after his inauguration on Jan. 20. The Trudeau team has reached out to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the head of the Trump transition team, to press the case for the importance of Canada's economic ties.

"Christie is fairly knowledgeable about Canada-U.S. relations as governor of New Jersey," says Gary Doer, the former Canadian ambassador to Washington.

Trudeau officials are under no illusion about the "breadth and anger" in the American body politic about free trade, which helped account for Mr. Trump's ascendancy.

The senior official said Mr. Trudeau understands the importance of getting the personal relationship with the president-elect off on the right foot, which is why he was uncritical of Mr. Trump during the U.S. election campaign.

In the congratulatory phone call that could come as early as Wednesday, the official said Mr. Trudeau will deal with substantive issues from the economy to security, which is critical to setting the tone for the new relationship.

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"You get two or three items you can raise in your initial congratulatory phone call and don't waste the two or three minutes that you have talking," Mr. Doer said. "You don't talk about areas of disagreement in your first call. You talk about areas of mutual interest to move forward on."

The key challenge for Mr. Trudeau is to be "inside the tent" if the president-elect follows through on his campaign pledge to rip up the North American free-trade deal and impose a 35-per-cent tariff on auto imports from Canada and Mexico. Roland Paris, who until recently was Mr. Trudeau's foreign-policy adviser, said the Prime Minister will need to make the case that the U.S. prospers from trade with Canada.

"On the policy side, he [Mr. Trudeau] is very well positioned to make the case that close economic co-operation and increased trade between Canada and the United States can help middle-class jobs in both countries and increase the competitiveness of North America internationally while also ensuring security of the continent," Mr. Paris said.

The Conservative Party was quick to urge the Prime Minister to get Mr. Trump to approve TransCanada's Keystone pipeline that President Barack Obama had cancelled. Mr. Trudeau and the Republican Party vowed to approve the controversial pipeline that had been promoted by the former Harper government.

"President-elect Trump has made it clear that he supports the Keystone XL pipeline, as has Prime Minister Trudeau," Interim Conservative Party Leader Rona Ambrose said in a statement. "The Conservative Party of Canada calls up the Prime Minister to reach out to president-elect Trump at the earliest possible opportunity and make approval of this job-creating project a top priority."

Canadian Chamber of Commerce president Perrin Beatty urged Mr. Trudeau to get Canadian issues on the president-elect's agenda as early as possible, particularly border management.

"It is vital for bilateral trade that the border between our countries remain open and allow for the swift passage of goods. Nearly three-quarters of Canadian exports go to or through the U.S., and such an open border is critical for our economic health," Mr. Beatty said. "But there is a long list of topics we will need to address, from softwood lumber to NAFTA to pipelines."

The task for Mr. Trudeau is to convince the president-elect that the U.S. and Canadian economies have integrated supply chains and harmonized regulations that would cause economic disruptions if tariffs were hiked or NAFTA was fundamentally changed.

The other challenge for Mr. Trudeau is to get the ear of a leader who is known to be erratic and with little knowledge of foreign affairs or Canada.

"He is so radical in so many ways. He is very spontaneous. It hard to see where he comes out in how he would relate to the Canadian common sense," said Michael Kergin, a former Canadian ambassador to Washington.

The Prime Minister will be taking a multifaceted approach to U.S. relations, working to cement ties with the new administration but also reaching out to Republican players in the House of Representatives and Senate.

"Congress would be the check. We would have to double down on the committee chairs," Mr. Kergin said. "We will have to work really hard to get the messages out to Congress because they would be the check on the excesses both on the economic and fiscal front and the foreign policy."

Over the next two months, Trudeau officials will meet with senior officials from the incoming Trump administration to provide them with one-page briefs on the top files between Canada and the United States such as border security, trade, regulatory harmonization and environmental co-operation.

"The art of the deal is to try to craft these things not as an ask, but to say 'this is in your interest if you should co-operate with us,'" Mr. Kergin said.

After Mr. Trump is sworn in, Canadian cabinet ministers will be working the phones to line up one-on-one meetings with their U.S. counterparts. The most important meeting will be between Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Trump early in the new year. The tradition is for the president-elect to visit Mexico first and to come to Canada soon after the inauguration.

But Mr. Paris said Washington can't be the centre of all political activity and that Mr. Trudeau must use his star power to appeal to a broader section of America.

"Our greatest asset is the Prime Minister himself because he enjoys a platform and visibility in the United States that no Canadian leader has ever, including his own father," Mr. Paris said. "So it would be worthwhile having the Prime Minister invest a considerable amount of time … talking to people, whether it's associations of state legislatures or investors or importers or exporters and raising the awareness of the fact that Canada is the best partner the United States has ever had."

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About the Author
Ottawa Bureau Chief

Robert Fife is The Globe and Mail's Ottawa Bureau Chief and the host of CTV's "Question Period with The Globe and Mail's Robert Fife." He uncovered the Senate expense scandal, setting the course for an RCMP investigation, audits and reform of Senate expense rules. In 2012, he exposed the E. More

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