Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in Ottawa on Thursday and during a joint press conference following those meetings, brought domestic politics to the forefront by taking aim at the Conservatives.
The brief visit, only a few hours long, is Pence’s first official state visit to Canada and saw the two leaders discuss a range of topics, key among them the ratification process for CUSMA, the renegotiated NAFTA deal, which is currently stalled before the U.S. Congress.
WATCH: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence talks trade with Trudeau in Ottawa
Trudeau and the Canadian negotiating team put a priority during those talks on including progressive chapters in the agreement dealing with labour rights, environmental regulations and Indigenous rights, something the Conservatives argued was a distraction from the process.
But Trudeau publicly blasted those criticisms during a press conference, saying their inclusion is now key to the future ratification of the deal.
“There were a number of Canadian Conservative politicians who questioned our desire to include strong provisions on the environment, strong provisions on labour, on gender, Indigenous issues and these Canadian Conservative politicians worried that we were distracting from the important work that needed to be part of NAFTA,” he said.
“But as the vice president has said, these are integral parts of what makes it a better deal for workers on both sides of the border … we are confident that the work being done on ratification is possible because we made sure that from multiple angles this was a better deal for Americans, for Canadians and for Mexicans.”
WATCH: Canada one step closer to ratifying new NAFTA agreement
Pence also used the press conference to reiterate his remarks from earlier in the morning that Trudeau “drove a hard bargain” during the talks.
Although negotiations concluded with a deal last autumn, ratification has so far been stalled on the heels of the U.S. midterms, which delivered control of the House of Representatives to the Democratic Party.
Democrats are in the process of trying to amend the renegotiated deal over concerns that provisions around labour standards in Mexico are not strong enough to adequately protect workers, and there has been little progress towards ratification.
But while U.S. legislators normally sit until the end of July, the Canadian House of Commons rises at the end of June.
That means there is a tightening time frame in which to ratify the deal and pressure to sort out a path forward amid the worsening partisan tensions in the U.S.
LISTEN: Mike Pence and Justin Trudeau to talk China in Ottawa
Like Canada, which introduced legislation to ratify the deal this week, Mexico is also moving forward.
Mexico’s chief negotiator in the talks, Jesus Seade, tweeted shortly ahead of Pence’s arrival in Ottawa that his country is presenting a bill to ratify the deal to its own legislature, and Pence stressed he remains hopeful it can be ratified by all parties this summer.
WATCH BELOW: Pence commends Canada for stance on Venezuela, Trudeau says it differs on Cuba’s influence
“I want to assure you that we’re making energetic efforts to move approval through the Congress of the United States this summer,” he said.
Despite a deal being signed, it cannot be implemented until after ratification.
Until then, the existing NAFTA deal remains as is.
The two leaders also said they talked about China and what Trudeau described as its attempts to “undermine” the values of Western democratic societies.
He described the aggression China is showing on the world stage as “an attempt to gain political leverage” but said they will not be successful.
“We’re in a moment where like-minded nations like Canada and the U.S. and many of our European and international partners have expressed their dismay with the way China is stepping forward more assertively and aggressively on the worlds stage,” he said. “We are all standing together.”
Pence vowed neither country will bow to “coercive tactics” from China.
He also added that the U.S. will remain committed to pressuring China to release Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, the two Canadians detained by China in December 2018 in what Chinese officials have billed as retaliation for the detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou by Canada earlier that same month.
While Meng is out on bail and living in her Vancouver home, Kovrig and Spavor have been allowed only limited consular access and are being kept in an undisclosed location that U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, a prominent Trump ally, condemned as “harsh conditions.”
Pence said Trump will be meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 Summit in Japan in June and will raise the issue with him.
“I can assure you in that context and going forward we’re going to continue to urge China to release the Canadian citizens,” Pence said.
“We respect and are grateful for the strong stance for the rule of law that Canada has taken with the Huawei executive.”
WATCH BELOW: Pence says Canada will deal with abortions how they want to, U.S. will do the same
The issue of abortion also raised what might be best described as polite loggerheads between Trudeau and Pence.
Both acknowledged they discussed the matter, which Trudeau had pledged to raise following a wave of recent restrictions by American states, but gave little indication any agreement of substance came from the talks.
“I raised the concerns many Canadians have about these new anti-choice laws that have been passed by American states. We are a country, a government that will always defend a woman’s right to choose,” he said, adding the conversation was “cordial” but that the two have different views.
Reproductive rights are a key focus for the Trudeau Liberals, who have prominent part of both their domestic and international agenda to promote gender equality.
But the decision to raise the matter with Pence comes after Trudeau has repeatedly accused the Conservatives of not doing enough to protect reproductive rights and after the Liberal Party launched a fundraising campaign to supporters saying the Conservatives can’t be trusted not to roll back access to abortion.
Scheer has consistently said he would not reopen the debate.
But just 24 hours earlier, his caucus stayed seated while the Liberals, NDP, Greens, Bloc Quebecois and Independents rose and applauded a motion by Bloc Quebecois MP Monique Pauze asking members to affirm “that a woman’s body belongs to her and her alone, and recognize her right to choose an abortion regardless of the reason.”
Conservative Sylvie Boucher was reportedly the only member of that caucus to applaud but the party’s Status of Woman critic, Rachael Harder, and its chair of the Status of Woman committee, Karen Vecchio, both stayed seated and did not applaud.
The talks also come after a Global News report that more than 100 Canadian women have been sent to the U.S. for abortions they cannot obtain here since 2014.