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Obama's First Int'l Trip Will Be Canada

Barack Obama will follow a presidential tradition and head to Canada for his first international venture in a visit that's certain to help define Canada-U.S. relations during his years in the White House.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office said Saturday that the president-elect has accepted his invitation to come to Canada soon after his inauguration.

Four of the last seven U.S. presidents have chosen Canada for their first international visit.

"It's good news, a sign of the importance of this relationship to both countries. We look forward to hosting the new president," Kory Teneycke, Harper's communications director, said from Ottawa.

"The fact remains that our two countries are very important trading partners to one another, that we are friends and allies ... although there are differences, there's a great deal more that we share in common when it comes to perspective and values."

Details were still sketchy about the precise timing of Obama's Canadian visit and what will be discussed.

Obama's transition aides said Saturday that Obama and Harper hadn't talked about the trip directly and Teneycke said it was too soon to say whether the president-elect would address Parliament.

Nonetheless, it's sure to be a trip that will make any other presidential visit in recent memory seem like an exercise in watching paint dry.

Many Canadians were jubilant when Obama won the Nov. 4 election to end eight years of unpopular Republican rule under President George W. Bush, and the one-time Illinois senator enjoyed sky-high approval ratings in Canada during the presidential election campaign.

Busloads of Canadians are traveling to Washington to take part in the inauguration festivities on Jan. 20.

"It's exciting that he's chosen Canada but more importantly it will be a great opportunity for a lot of Canadians to bear witness to this new and different administration from the U.S.," Glyn Lewis, a Canadian who worked for the Obama campaign and is traveling to D.C. for the inauguration, said Saturday from Vancouver.

"I think a lot of Canadians are looking forward to having more cordial relations with the United States."

Up for debate, however, is what kind of personal relationship might develop between Obama and Harper should the prime minister still be in power at the time.

Harper's Conservative government is scheduled to table a budget on Jan. 26 that could still be defeated in a non-confidence vote by a coalition of Liberals, New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois.

Since his historic election, Obama has set aside partisanship and stressed his willingness to consult and work with people from both ends of the political spectrum.

Harper's intense partisanship, on the other hand, has almost cost him his career.

His attempt to ban political parties from receiving public funding set the wheels in motion for a dramatic Parliament Hill crisis that almost toppled his government.

The prime minister's refusal to extend Canada's mission to Afghanistan will likely be a point of contention between the two leaders, since Obama has asked for more help from NATO allies on that front.

One political observer says Harper needs to focus on common ground during Obama's trip to Canada.

The visit offers an "an opportunity to impress upon him the scope for pursuing an agenda that's in our mutual interests," said Michael Hart, a free-trade negotiator and the Simon Reisman chair at the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.

He said Harper shouldn't try to build a relationship with Obama based on "irritant resolution" but rather focus on developing "mutual confidence and trust" by working together on issues that include climate change, the global economic crisis and global security issues.

If tensions were to escalate between Obama and Harper, they wouldn't be the first U.S.-Canada leaders to have little affection for one another.

There was no love lost between John F. Kennedy and John Diefenbaker, for example, after Diefenbaker complained that Kennedy was too young and brash to be president.

When JFK opted to travel first to Canada after his inauguration in 1961, he was apparently keen to appear vital and vigorous next to his older colleague.

Too vigorous, it would seem - Kennedy hurt his back during a tree-planting ceremony on Parliament Hill, and was said to have cursed "Dief" in the years to come whenever his back acted up.

He so reviled Diefenbaker, in fact, that he desperately wanted to help Lester B. Pearson defeat him in 1963, but his aides wouldn't allow it.

Relations between Richard Nixon and Pierre Trudeau weren't any friendlier.

Nixon famously called Trudeau an "asshole" after the prime minister got the better of Nixon during an Oval Office meeting, prompting Trudeau to comment: "I've been called worse things by better people."

Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney, on the other hand, had a warm relationship based largely on their Irish heritage, even though their friendship annoyed Canadians who felt Mulroney was too subservient to the U.S. president.

Jean Chretien and Bill Clinton also formed a fond friendship and often golfed together.

George W. Bush didn't share Clinton's affection for Chretien, however, and the president opted to head to Mexico instead of Canada for his first international visit in 2001.

Since Canada is America's biggest trading partner, Bush's trip to Mexico was viewed as a snub of sorts in diplomatic circles.

There was an uproar in Canada a few months later when Bush failed to thank Canadians for their help after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Hart said Canadians made too much out of Bush's so-called "slight" in choosing to visit Mexico before Canada.

"He's a Texan. He lives next door to Mexico . . . I think it made sense to him to make a visit there early on. I don't think that the people in the White House spent a lot of time thinking what precedents they're setting."

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