HALIFAX, N.S. - Prime Minister Stephen Harper recognized the importance of Barack Obama's inauguration with a reminder Monday of Canada's importance to the United States as an ally and neighbour.

On the eve of Obama's inauguration, Harper said his message to the president-elect would be the same as the one he shared when they spoke.

"In all the great challenges that confront him, he will find no better friend, neighbour and ally than Canada and than Canadians," Harper told a news conference in Halifax after attending a business round table on the Jan. 27 federal budget.

Harper said it is a "wonderful gesture" that Obama has chosen Canada to make his first foreign visit as president, and it's a sign that strong relations between the two countries are being re-established, which is a priority for the federal government.

"I think this is another step forward," he added.

Harper said he expects to speak to Obama again in the "not-too-distant future."

The prime minister said he last spoke to President George W. Bush in December and hopes to speak to him in the days after he leaves office.

"The coming to office of the first African-American president is a hugely symbolic and important page in American history," he said. "That said, none of us are under any illusions about the great challenges that face president Obama."

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