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An Unexpected and Challenging Transition: Pierre Trudeau and the Ascent of the Reagan presidency, 1980-1981

The United States of America has been unquestionably Canada’s most important external relationship, especially post-1945.  Consequentially, relationships between Prime Ministers and Presidents have naturally been the subject of interest for Canadian journalists and academics alike; that Americans have not paid similar attention reflects the realities of power asymmetry between them. Day-to-day relations across the 49th parallel are traditionally managed by Cabinet members, bureaucrats and diplomats, but the personal rapport at the top sets the tone and shapes the relationship. Conflicts and personality clashes have at times arisen existed between Presidents and Prime Ministers due to differences in temperament, outlook or policies, as was famously the case between John Diefenbaker and John F. Kennedy, Lester Pearson and Lyndon Johnson, and Pierre Trudeau and Richard Nixon. Such scenarios have demanded skilful diplomacy on the parts of ambassadors, senior officials or even Cabinet members to mitigate disagreements and keep relations on an even keel. Since 2016, this has again been the case, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seemingly as different from US President Donald Trump as possible.  

From Ottawa’s perspective, Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US Presidential election was both unexpected and undesirable. Yet this was not the first time that a Liberal Canadian Prime Minister faced the unexpected election of a conservative Republican American President who was not only starkly different in temperament and outlook, but also committed to changing established norms and expectations, on American terms. This array of documents reflects how Canadian officials assessed Reagan and his agenda, and how they readied Pierre Trudeau to engage the new President in a way that would mitigate differences as best possible while defending Canadian interests and goals