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Published March 23, 2023

From pastries to policy, here's a look at a century of presidential visits to Canada

The last visit by a U.S. President to Canada wrapped up with angry tweets by Donald Trump

By Sarah Ritchie in Ottawa

It remains to be seen whether the president’s Irish eyes will be smiling in Ottawa this week, but Joe Biden and Justin Trudeau will almost certainly have a more pleasant get-together than the last visit by a U.S. leader to his northern neighbour.

It's been nearly five years since Donald Trump flew to La Malbaie, Que., for a G7 summit — a meeting that was later characterized as ending in "disarray."

A memorable image courtesy of the official Instagram account of then-German chancellor Angela Merkel summed up the talks. 

In the photo, Trump sits on one side of a table with his arms crossed, glancing up at those who surround him with a half-smirk. Leaning toward him from the opposite side is a stern Merkel, whose hands are flat on the white tablecloth, and French President Emmanuel Macron, who seems to have Trump’s attention. Shinzo Abe, then prime minister of Japan, is in the centre of the frame with his arms crossed over his chest. 

Trudeau isn't captured in the photo. But by Trump's account, it was the Canadian prime minister's tough talk on trade during a closing news conference that caused the summit’s fragile consensus statement to fall apart just hours after the document was signed. 

The president caught wind of Trudeau's remarks from his plane and started tweeting. 

He said in a tweet that "based on Justin's false statements at his news conference," and due to "massive" tariffs from Canada, he would no longer be endorsing the communique. In another tweet, he called the prime minister "meek and mild."

Presidents have been making the journey north from Washington, D.C., for 100 years. 

And those sojourns have proved memorable for plenty of reasons other than social-media firestorms, offering everything from telling glimpses into the state of the relationship to spontaneous pastry-shop visits.

There was the 1985 Shamrock Summit in Quebec City, where then-president Ronald Reagan, then-prime minister Brian Mulroney and their wives sang a rendition of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" in harmony.

An article in Time magazine at the time called it "a piece of political theatre staged not so much to solve international problems as to create an atmosphere conducive to seeking their solution." 

But Mulroney said it marked a "new era in relations" between the two countries, as they discussed continental security and trade. Three years later, he and Reagan signed the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement, the precursor to NAFTA.

Nearly 20 years after that, George W. Bush's first official bilateral visit came with a frostier reception. 

Bush had just been re-elected as president and was on the eve of his second term when he met with then-prime minister Paul Martin in Halifax in December 2004.

Protesters lined the streets around Parliament Hill to voice their opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. 

That led Bush to quip during a news conference: "I want to thank the Canadian people who came out to wave with all five fingers for their hospitality."

The U.S. embassy in Canada’s website lists dozens of presidential visits dating back to 1923, when Warren G. Harding attended a reception in Vancouver — though the U.S. only recognized Canada as "an independent state with autonomous control over its foreign relations" in February 1927.

Franklin Roosevelt was regularly north of the border during his time in the Oval Office, although many of those stops were to vacation on Campobello Island, N.B. 

During the Second World War, Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill twice travelled to Quebec City for what are now known as the First Quebec Conference and Second Quebec Conference. 

According to the Roosevelt Papers, the then-president suggested the location for the August 1943 meeting because "Quebec offered the advantages of a delightful climate and appropriate and comfortable quarters at the historic Citadel and the Château Frontenac."  

Despite being the host, then-prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King didn’t attend many of the key meetings. 

Pierre Trudeau's time in office coincided with the terms of five different presidents. 

They included Richard Nixon, who, it would later be revealed, was not particularly fond of the then-prime minister: the infamous tapes of his Oval Office conversations included Nixon referring to "this son of a bitch Trudeau" in a chat with his treasury secretary.

That might not be the most-quoted Nixon quip as relates to Trudeaus. At a 1972 state dinner, he toasted the elder Trudeau's son Justin, an infant at the time, calling him "the future prime minister of Canada."

In more recent history, the celebrity status of Barack Obama left a lasting impact on more than one downtown Ottawa pastry shop.

The former president's first official visit to another country came in February 2009, which included a surprise stroll through Ottawa's ByWard Market.

There, he was given a deep-fried pastry known as a BeaverTail — topped with whipped cream in the shape of an 'O' — and purchased maple leaf-shaped cookies from Le Moulin de Province.

"I figured I'd get some points from my daughters," Obama said as he picked up the red-and-white cookies.

And if he wants, his former vice-president can still get his hands on the now-famous Obama cookies this week. 

Banner image: President Barack Obama thanks shop workers after he got some Canadian Maple Leaf cookies, seen in display case, during an unannounced visit to a market in Ottawa, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Charles Dharapak

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2023.

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