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'The symbolism alone is priceless political currency’

Concordia professor Brooke Jeffrey sets the table for Justin Trudeau's state dinner at the White House
March 9, 2016
By Brooke Jeffrey


Following last Sunday night’s 60 Minutes interview with Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, and his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, will be heading to the White House to be honoured at a state dinner on Thursday, March 10.

What to make of all this attention from our American cousins?

“It’s huge! It’s an incredible honour to be invited to a state dinner, especially after nearly a decade of poor relations with the USA,” says Brooke Jeffrey, professor in Concordia’s Department of Political Science and director of the Master of Arts in Public Policy and Public Administration (MPPPA).

Here, Jeffrey unpacks the episode of 60 Minutes and the Trudeaus’ sojourn to Washington.

Canada is back: what now?

As journalists have breathlessly been telling us for days, not since the days of Jean Chrétien has a Canadian prime minister been the guest of honour at a state dinner at the White House.

Photos of Justin Trudeau with Bono in Davos or the Queen in London are one thing, but an evening with American president Barack Obama is quite another. The symbolism alone is priceless political currency for Trudeau and his new Liberal government, never mind Canada.

From this perspective, the recent and unprecedented interview with Trudeau on 60 minutes, the flagship CBS news show, is the icing on the cake. Not just Canadians, but millions of Americans saw Trudeau in person and can now put (what his interviewer described as) a “youthful, handsome, stylish” face on their northern neighbour.

Certainly, the interview seemed designed to show Trudeau in a positive light. Numerous puffball questions were interspersed with flattering photos of Trudeau with his famous father and his highly photogenic family. Not surprisingly, he is being seen by many Americans as a northern JFK, and Canada once again is being viewed, as in his father’s day, as Camelot on the Rideau. Canada is back indeed.

But what, if anything, does this mean for Canada-US relations? Surprisingly few issues of substance were raised in the television interview, despite the many pressing issues on the Canada-US policy agenda, including energy, climate change, border security and Canada’s role in the ongoing battle against ISIS.

Trudeau did manage to highlight the fact that Canada has taken in more than 28,000 Syrian refugees (in comparison with only 2,000 by the United States), and he spoke convincingly about the underlying rationale for this action, highlighting once again for Canadian viewers the Liberal values they responded to so positively during the 2015 election campaign. In the land of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, this was presumably a refreshing change for many Americans as well.

Rumours abound that a number of important agreements will be announced and signed during the sojourn in Washington. While most of the heavy lifting on policy matters will have been done by officials long before the Trudeaus sit down to dinner with the Obamas, we should not underestimate the importance of such positive symbolism, and the enhanced potential for the Government of Canada to come to a positive resolution of many of these policy issues based on our improved relationship with the American president, and our country’s newly positive image with many Americans.


Find out more about the Department of Political Science.

View the full 60 Minutes episode on Justin Trudeau here, plus additional footage.


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