Obama set to learn some lessons from his Canadian neighbours

Top advisers accompany US President on today’s bridge-building trip
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It is the fate of America’s quiet northern neighbour to be relentlessly mocked on late-night American TV shows, or worse, to be ignored. But signalling that he is turning the page on the go-it-alone militarism of the Bush era, Barack Obama makes the first foreign trip of his presidency to Canada’s frozen capital today.

Mr Obama is bringing several of the most heavyweight advisers on the US political stage on his short trip. His top economic adviser Larry Summers, his environment “tsar” and National Security Adviser General Jim Jones are all coming.

Canada has plenty of helpful lessons, however. It has not had a single bank failure, for example, nor any bailouts or emergency government injections into the financial or mortgage sectors. The World Economic Forum ranked Canada’s banking system as the healthiest in the world. The US ranked 44th. By acting multilaterally through the United Nations, Canada attracts considerably less hatred in the world than the US.

On arrival in Ottawa Mr Obama will be greeted by the Western world’s first black head of state, Haitian-born Governor-General Michaëlle Jean. From there he heads to the parliamentary buildings aboard one of several fortress-like presidential limousines which were especially airlifted to Ottawa for the seven-hour visit.

Cadillac One, with its 13cm armour plating and run-flat tyres will whisk President Obama past frozen fields to the downtown area. There will be several decoy Cadillacs on hand and rumour has it that the Secret Service brought toy cars to help the Mounties map out precisely who is who in the motorcade.

No public events are planned but the city is gripped with excitement. Canadians are coming from far and wide hoping to glimpse the President. The last time Ottawa got so worked up about an American president was in 1961 when 50,000 people lined the streets to glimpse JFK and Jackie Onassis.

George Bush pricked Canadian insecurities by first visiting Mexico when he became President. In the aftermath of 11 September, Mr Bush outraged Canadians by failing to include Canada in the long list of countries he thanked for coming to America’s aid. That was after thousands of stranded American travellers had been put up by generous Canadians for weeks.

First Lady Michelle Obama is staying home this time and with the economic crisis deepening by the day, Mr Obama’s talks with Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be long on substance and short on ceremony. The two leaders are ideological opposites, but Mr Obama has gone out of his way to soothe Canadian concerns. Asked about “Buy American” clauses in the US economic rescue bill, Mr Obama told CBC television: “Canada is one of our most important trading partners, we rely on them heavily, there’s $1.5bn worth of trade going back and forth every day between the two countries and it is not in anybody’s interest to see that trade diminish.”

A clash is on climate change seems more likely. Canada is second only to Saudi Arabia in oil reserves, which are particularly noxious tar sands in Alberta. Extracting the oil – 60 per cent of which is consumed in America – has enormous environmental costs. Mr Obama wants to lead global efforts to reverse climate change at next December’s Copenhagen summit. Doing that will require drastic cutbacks on imports of Canada’s “dirty oil,” which comes from strip-mining the oil sands – two tons of it for each barrel of oil. Mr Harper is having none of that but has made a vague offer of a climate change and energy deal.