OTTAWA – US President Barack Obama will visit Canada Thursday, on his first trip overseas since being inaugurated last month, with economic concerns expected to top his agenda.
The visit is scheduled to last only about six hours, just enough time for meetings, a working lunch and a press conference with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Obama will also meet with Michael Ignatieff, the new head of Canada's main political opposition group, the Liberal Party.
Staunch allies, the two countries are the world's biggest trade partners, with bilateral trade estimated at over 500 billion dollars (404 billion US) in 2007, according to the US embassy in Ottawa.
Harper, who secured a second term at the head of his minority Conservative government in October, is closer ideologically to former US president George W. Bush than to Obama, a Democrat.
But since the election of the new president, Harper, one of the first foreign leaders Obama contacted after his inauguration, has insisted that the two countries' close relations trump the political affiliation of their respective leaders.
With a recession crippling the economy on both sides of the border, Harper has said he expects the economic situation to dominate their conversations, with a special focus on the troubled auto sector.
The survival of the "Big Three" automakers based in Detroit, Michigan, concerns Canada because the companies also operate major plants in Ontario, the heart of Canada's auto industry.
General Motors and Chrysler plants in Ontario are each due to present a plan by Friday to bring the cost of their labor to the same level as US factories in order to secure 4.0 billion dollars (3.2 billion US) in aid promised by the Canadian government.
Harper has said he was "concerned" about a controversial "Buy American" clause included in the massive 787-billion-dollar US (974 billion Canadian) economic stimulus plan passed by the US Congress Friday that Obama is expected to sign into law Tuesday in Denver, Colorado.
The prime minister stressed that Obama himself said that "he wants to ensure that these stimulus packages do not lead to protectionist measures in the United States or anywhere else."
In their telephone conversation on January 23, the two leaders "also discussed the importance of the environment and energy, as well as international issues, including Afghanistan," according to Harper's office.
Tensions are most likely to emerge on these issues.
Obama has indicated he intends to aggressively bolster American "green" energy initiatives and to fight climate change, while opposition and environmentalists have accused Harper of dragging his feet on environmental issues like cleaning the oil sands of Alberta, a province that is his party's stronghold.
Before he was elected, Obama said he intended to reduce his country's dependance on "dirty oil," but Harper has said that Canada is the biggest source of energy and oil for the United States, its "safest" supplier.
Ottawa hopes to conclude a "continental agreement" with Washington to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but "it is not obvious at all that both government are on the same wavelength," said Louis Belanger, professor of international relations at Laval University in Quebec.
The Afghan mission is a sensitive issue in Canada, where Harper has committed to keep the country's force of 2,700 troops there only to the end of 2011, even if Obama requests an extension of the deadline.
Some 65 percent of Canadians share their government's position, according to an Angus Reid poll.
The meeting between the two leaders comes as the Obama administration reviews US strategy in Afghanistan in the face of an emboldened Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency, and plans to possibly double the 36,000-strongly US force there.
Another thorny issue between the two countries is the incarceration of Canadian Omar Kadr at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Khadr was 15 when he was arrested for allegedly killing a US soldier in Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, the leaders of Canada's three opposition parties asked Obama to return Khadr, now 22.
Khadr's military trial was suspended last month at the request of Obama, who pledged to close the controversial "war-on-terror" prison, but the Canadian remains incarcerated.
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