Trudeau’s first speech to a U.S. audience: Let’s not live in fear of the world

"He’s so positive"

CPJustin Trudeau didn’t mention the American election in his first message to a U.S. audience, a few hours after arriving for his first prime ministerial visit to Washington.

He didn’t have to.

The subtext was clear enough. The prime minister used a late-evening talk to lament the danger of isolation, in a country gripped by heated election debates over banning Muslim travellers; refusing Syrian refugees; expelling Mexican migrants; and cancelling trade deals blamed for sending jobs abroad.

“It becomes easy to be fearful,” he told the gathering, hosted by a progressive think-tank at an art gallery near the White House and attended by officials from both countries, including Canadian cabinet ministers.

”It becomes easy to turn in on ourselves. But we know from history that it’s much more important to turn outwards. And to draw out the best of each other. And to understand that whenever people get together regardless of how different they may seem there are always more things that we have in common.”

The closest he came to mentioning the election was to say that Americans, Canadians, and others who discuss politics are struggling with very similar problems: a struggling middle class, rapid change, and globalization that represents not only new opportunities but also risks.

He acknowledged the challenges of globalization.

He said fast-changing populations have people wrestling with their identity. He said Canada has the same challenges – he joked that it isn’t some perfect happy land where everyone hugs pandas all day and everyone’s a progressive feminist, but also has voices pulling the country in different directions.

Trudeau alluded to Canada’s recent election. He didn’t specifically mention its debates over religious headwear. But he said the fanfare video shown before he took the stage had sugar-coated the campaign a bit.

He said North America needed a positive attitude about the world to take advantage of its new opportunities: ”To be at its most generous, to be at its wisest, to be at its most innovative… To learn to draw from the populations that come here from every corner of the planet.”

In short, Trudeau appeared to embrace the moniker attached to him in one American newspaper headline last week: “The Anti-(Donald)Trump,” with the piece contrasting his positions with the refugee-refusing, Muslim-travel-ban-proposing, Mexican-wall-wanting, trade-deal-blasting Republican frontrunner.

The contrast was not lost on the people milling about on the sidewalk outside. A small group of people waited to catch a glimpse of him entering and exiting the event, some lingering there for up to six hours.

One woman instantly made the link between the prime minister’s message and the grouchy anti-foreign mood of the American election.

”He’s so positive,” said Chantal Quintero, who’s from Canada but has lived in the U.S. for 22 years.

”And his message of unity is really something that we could use in the United States. Especially with the presidential campaign. Just his advocacy for women, for people of colour, for immigrants – it’s just a really refreshing message.”

The cocktail-party progressive pep-talk atmosphere shifts today, to a more intense day of policy-making.

The prime minister will meet with President Barack Obama at the White House in the morning, followed by a press conference. They plan announce closer co-operation on climate change, border security, and in the Arctic. Trudeau then goes for lunch at the State Department.

In the afternoon he’ll meet with lawmakers from both parties.

The day ends with the first White House State dinner for a Canadian leader in 19 years. Trudeau will dine in the mansion’s East Room, where his father was serenaded by Robert Goulet at an after-party for his own first state dinner here in 1969.

The three-day trip ends Friday with a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, a speech, and a town-hall-type forum with university students.

The visit comes so late in Obama’s tenure that one official couldn’t say whether or not this state dinner – the 11th of his presidency – might be his final one.

Another White House official this week described a ”special relationship” budding between the rookie progressive leader and the one who leaves office in 10 months.