That custom isn't always followed. But for Canadians, who are chronically insecure about their relationship with the United States, it's usually seen as a sign of Canada's standing in Washington. In the past, picking a destination other than Canada for that first trip abroad usually led to considerable hand-wringing.
In 2001, President George W. Bush opted to visit Mexican President Vicente Fox at Fox's ranch in San Cristobal rather than head north to Ottawa, sparking suggestions that Canada had been unfairly ignored and that Bush was deliberately shunning Canada's Liberal prime minister at the time, Jean Chrétien.
Eight years later, there was a collective sigh of relief when President Barack Obama, less than a month after his inauguration, flew up to frigid Ottawa for a six-hour visit whose highlight was a stop at a bakery for a BeaverTail, a flat, deep-fried pastry favored by skaters on the city's frozen Rideau Canal.
But with Trump, there hasn't been a peep of protest from Canadian politicians or editorial writers.
When Trump was elected in November, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the usual congratulatory call and told the news media that he had invited the U.S. president for the traditional first visit north. “I reminded him of the tradition and extended an invitation for him to come up. He responded positively, but obviously we’re still working with the incoming administration to finalize it,” Trudeau said.
There has not been any word about a potential visit to Ottawa since then. Trudeau's first face-to-face meeting with Trump, in February, took place at the White House, not Canada’s Parliament.
Srdjan Vucetic, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa, says it’s clear what’s going on. Trudeau has no desire to have Trump turn up in Canada and provoke massive protests, yet wants to keep relations with Washington as smooth as possible. “We have a radical president who nobody wants to meet, but there is a diplomatic playbook where you have to invite the leader of the free world,” Vucetic said.
“I imagine most governments that are not authoritarian have the same aim,” he continued. “Invite him — but not really.”
Since Trump's election, Canadians' opinions of the United States have dropped to historic lows. According to the Environics Institute, a Toronto-based pollster and public policy group, only 44 percent of Canadians now hold a positive view of America, compared with 68 percent in fall 2012. That's the lowest favorability rating the United States has received since 1982, when Environics began asking the question.
“Clearly, President Trump is not popular with Canadians,” said Keith Neuman, the executive director of Environics. “I think it would create a problem for the Trudeau government if Donald Trump did come.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May has already discovered the pitfalls of a prospective Trump trip. When May invited Trump in January for a state visit to Britain, the announcement sparked huge protests and a massive online petition. The speaker of the British House of Commons later said there’s no way he will allow Trump to address Parliament, and the potential visit has been delayed by several months.
Small wonder, then, that government officials were quoted in Canadian media in January as saying that they would not be upset if a visit from Trump were delayed “for several months.” Cameron Ahmad, Trudeau's spokesman, would not say what happened to Trudeau's original invitation. “They did have a really successful visit, and we’re in regular communications with our counterparts in the U.S.," he told The Washington Post.
So, while the invitation stands, it’s one RSVP that officials in the prime minister's office are not anxious to receive.