WASHINGTON – With Ivanka Trump looking on, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explained why he’s hoping to get her father to include progressive ideas like protections for women, the environment, and labour in a new NAFTA agreement, while acknowledging that some provisions might be “aspirational” and non-binding.
The prime minister found himself in the awkward position of being asked to comment on his relationship with Donald Trump on a stage at a Washington gala while the president’s daughter was seated at a front table, 15 metres away.
A number of people in the room groaned or booed when the moderator brought up Trump’s name at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit, the first event Trudeau attended upon arriving Tuesday for two days Washington, which will include a visit with the president at the White House.
READ MORE: Justin Trudeau to meet with Donald Trump to seek common ground on trade
It got more awkward when a later speaker at the gala took what appeared to be a subtle shot at the American administration – led, of course, by the father of a woman seated a stone’s throw away.
People in the crowd cheered wildly when the speaker asked: “Who wants to move to Canada?” They cheered again when she said, “You guys like immigrants, right?”
The prime minister made an allusion to the unique situation earlier in the evening, when he was being interviewed on stage.
WATCH: Trudeau is about to go on a mission to fight for Canadian jobs and sell free trade. David Akin has more on the PM’s trip to Washington, Mexico City.
When the moderator commented on his colourful socks, Trudeau said they’re great for killing time in conversation, like right now, he said, as the sock-talk let five seconds elapse where he wasn’t being asked to comment on Trump.
But Trudeau said he and the president share a goal of helping the middle class and he raised examples of how his so-called progressive grace agenda might achieve that. Trudeau cited the gender chapter in the updated Canada-Chile free trade agreement as an inspiration, and appeared to acknowledge what some critics have said about its provisions: that it simply states aspirational intentions, but doesn’t carry legal teeth.
“It talks about things like pay equity, women’s rights like maternity leave. Things like that. It can be aspirational, it can be concrete,” Trudeau said.
“(But it’s about recognizing that) putting progressive elements into trade deals – labour protections, environmental protections, actually helps us make the case for trade and reassure people that the benefits of trade will be distributed more fairly.”
READ MORE: Trudeau and Harper both talk NAFTA a few blocks away from each other in D.C.
He drew several nods of agreement from Ivanka Trump as he discussed the challenge of getting women to enter politics.
She nodded when Trudeau joked that women often express fear about the impact on their families and lives, while men proudly respond: “What took you so long.”
Trudeau was asked about what he learned from his own father, the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau and he replied: having respect for people.
During the gala dinner, the prime minister sat with his wife Sophie beside Ivanka and the U.S. deputy national security adviser Dina Powell.
The prime minister has met the first daughter several times.
The first was in February during his first White House meeting with Trump.
They announced the creation of a Canada-U.S. Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders, a joint initiative meant to help businesses owned by women.
READ MORE: U.S. Chamber of Commerce warns against Trump’s ‘highly dangerous’ NAFTA demands
The idea for the project came from Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford, who worked on it with two senior White House staffers: Ivanka’s husband Jared Kushner, and Powell.
The group, which has had a low public profile since, says it’s working on recommendations over the coming months to achieve its five priorities, including increasing women’s presence in science-based education programs and improving access to capital.
The prime minister and his wife also sat next to Ivanka Trump at a Broadway screening of the play “Come From Away,” about Canadians taking in stranded U.S. air travellers after the 9-11 attacks.