OTTAWA—U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence publicly pledged to “stand with” Canada as it fights China’s detention of two Canadian citizens, tit-for-tat arrests in retaliation for Canada’s assistance to the U.S. in prosecuting a Huawei executive.
“We stand with you for the security of our country and yours and the interests of our citizens,” Pence told a group of reporters at a photo-op as he headed into a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the nation’s capital.
It was a significant public statement by the American vice-president, recognizing the detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — which the U.S. and Canada has called arbitrary — is a matter of international security interest.
The two Canadians, one a former diplomat, were detained Dec. 10 after Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou at the request of U.S. authorities. She has since been charged on suspicion of making fraudulent statements to U.S. banks in an effort to skirt sanctions against Iran.
In advance of the meeting, Trudeau had promised to raise with the conservative Republican Pence what the Liberal prime minister called a “backsliding” on abortion rights happening in the U.S.
But Pence made clear in a tweet as he departed Washington that he was making this first official visit to Canada to discuss the “critical trade agenda.”
He reminded reporters again it was his “principle reason” for the bilateral meetings.
Trudeau said the ratification process for the new NAFTA agreement will be an opportunity for “us to work together and collaborate for the benefit of our citizens.”
Trudeau said that other issues would also be on the agenda for Pence’s Ottawa visit, singling out the “challenges that we are each having in terms of China.
“We are of course very concerned with the Canadians who are being arbitrarily detained in China. The U.S. has been very strong in its supportive words and its support in general on this issue,” Trudeau said.
In reply, Pence said that the U.S. has “spoken out strongly” about the arrest and detention of two Canadian citizens in China.
“Our relationship with China, both economic and strategic is a real focus of both of our countries,” he said. “Just know that we stand with you for the security of our country and yours and the interests of our citizens.”
Pence then said Canadians should know that Trudeau “drove a hard bargain” in negotiations to reach a modernized North American free trade pact.
“I want to thank you personally for your engagement, for your leadership and for the efforts you made to get us to this point,” he said.
“We have an historic opportunity to strengthen the economic ties between our two nations,” he said,
The negotiations, that took more than 13 months, led to a deal that will take effect only after all three partners — Mexico, the U.S. and Canada — ratify it.
But it has run into political headwinds in the U.S. after the Democrats won control of the House of Representatives in midterm elections last year.
The Trudeau government tabled legislation this week to begin that process but is being careful to proceed at a similar pace to the U.S., mindful that the Democrats could press the Trump administration to make modifications that Canada would have no leverage or input into.
Pence assured Trudeau the U.S. would also make “energetic efforts” to move the deal through Congress in the coming months.
Following their one-on-one meeting, Pence and Trudeau met with the Canadian Council for the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a body that has advised the government throughout the trade talks.
Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, and David McNaughton, the Canadian ambassador in Washington, joined Pence and Trudeau for the discussions on the new trade deal.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Minister of International Trade Diversification Jim Carr, Minister of Agriculture Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains were also present.
Among those also present were Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phyllis Yaffe, Canada’s consul general in New York City, Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, former Conservative cabinet minister James Moore and Brian Topp, a political strategist who was most recently an adviser to former Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.
Pence’s arrival at West Block, the new site of the prime minister’s offices and of the House of Commons, was low-key.
It drew a knot of bystanders. But there was nevertheless tight security.
Pence, accompanied by wife Karen, thanked Trudeau for the “warm welcome” to Ottawa. Pence is the most senior member of the U.S. administration to visit since Donald Trump took office in 2017.
The U.S. vice-president said he was “especially grateful” for Trudeau’s time on an historic sports day as the Toronto Raptors prepare to make their first-ever appearance in the NBA finals with game one of the series against the Golden State Warriors.
“I think I know your loyalty and I think you know mine. But we know it’s going to be a great playoff,” Pence said.
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier