Politics

HE'S NO CHURCHILL

But Bush, while praising Canada, effectively made his hard-edged case for protecting America

JOHN GEDDES December 13 2004
Politics

HE'S NO CHURCHILL

But Bush, while praising Canada, effectively made his hard-edged case for protecting America

JOHN GEDDES December 13 2004

HE'S NO CHURCHILL

Politics

JOHN GEDDES

THE BAR FOR SPEECHES by foreign leaders visiting Canada is set impossibly high. On Dec. 30, 1941, Winston Churchill electrified the Canadian Parliament by recalling dire predictions that England “would have her neck wrung like a chicken” in a lonely stand against German military might. Then came the indelible Churchillian punchline: “Some chicken! Some neck!” And some oratory. Holding George W. Bush, or anyone else, to that standard would be grossly unfair. But in considering Bush’s speech in Halifax last week, a more apt analogy might be drawn to an earlier wartime address by Churchill, this one not on Canadian soil, but at a lunch in honour of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie

King in London on Sept. 4,1941. “Canada,” Churchill said on that occasion, “is the linchpin of the English-speaking world.”

That memorable phrase defined Canada as the essential link between the Commonwealth and the United States. Churchill went even further, suggesting Canada was the bridge between Europe and the New World. He was flattering Canadians, of course, in the cause of shoring up Canada’s resolve to go on playing a big wartime role. In doing so, he put his unique rhetorical stamp on what is a durable theme in attempts to sum up Canada’s place in the world. Canadians

like to see their country as a midAtlantic middle way. In recent times, that has often meant a compromise between the socialdemocratic tendencies of Europe and the private sector’s

primacy in the U.S. Churchill’s genius was to turn to his advantage Canadians’ sensitivities about their country’s status in the affairs of bigger, more powerful nations.

Bush attempted something similar from behind the podium at Halifax’s historic Pier 21. He was careful not to appear to be telling Canadians what they should want their country to be, but rather reminded them how they have seen themselves in the past. Commentators seized on Bush’s use of a long quotation from Mackenzie King as a deft historical allusion. The President implied a parallel between the Second World War prime minister’s exhortation to Canadians to “go out and meet the enemy before he reaches our shores,” and his own invasion

of Iraq. More broadly, Bush used reminders of the common cause of Americans and Canadians in the wars of the last century to call for greater co-operation in this one, especially on continental missile defence and his wider war on terror.

A grasp of Canadian history and the particulars of the present can make a speech by a foreign leader sound respectful and relevant. But for the words to make a difference, they must encourage something already in the air. When Bush appealed to a more aggressive, even militaristic, aspect of the Canadian identity, a substantial portion

of his audience was undoubtedly receptive. In last spring’s federal election, both the Liberals and the Conservatives campaigned on promises of big spending boosts for the Cana-

dian Forces. A vocal lobby of former officers and defence experts persistently calls for restoring Canada’s fighting capacity, and de-emphasizing peacekeeping. On Bush’s controversial missile shield plan, Defence Minister Bill Graham and key voices from the Prime Minister’s Office have strongly hinted Ottawa should sign on. Bush was not preaching entirely to the unconverted.

Foreign leaders have often used speeches to nudge Canadian politicians in the direction they might already be leaning. It helps to arrive with a luminous name. Rarely has Parliament Hill been so excited as when Nelson Mandela visited in 1990, only months after being released from his long imprisonment in South Africa. Mandela thanked

But Bush, while praising Canada, effectively made his hard-edged case for protecting America

the Canadian government for its staunch opposition to apartheid, and praised Brian Mulroney for taking a tougher

stand on sanctions than Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher. “[Canadians] have proved themselves not only to be steadfast friends of our struggling people but great defenders of human rights and the idea of democracy itself,” Mandela said. “They are to us like brothers and sisters from whose warm embrace we shall never be parted.” Words like those, from a man like that, have a way of echoing a long time. It would be a mistake to underestimate Mandela’s influence on the growing importance of Africa in Ottawa’s foreign policy and aid strategy in the years to follow. One of the few leaders whose presence might rival Mandela’s is Václav Havel, the Czech dissident-turnedstatesman. His April 1999 address to Parliament as Czech president struck a powerful chord among policy thinkers. Havel’s theme was the emerging idea that protecting people must sometimes trump state sovereignty, justifying international interventions like the war in Kosovo. “It seems,” Havel said, “that the enlightened endeavours of generations of democrats, the horrible experience of two world wars, which contributed so substantially to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the overall development of our civilization, are gradually bringing the human race to the realization that a human being

is more important than a state.” Five years later, the notion of the right to protect populations within countries where human

rights are being violated has a central place in Paul Martin’s foreign policy. Like Mandela, Havel injected charisma into a potential stream of Canadian policy development in a way that few homegrown politicians could. Clearly, Bush does not bring that capacity to unite his listeners. Like him or not, though, his Halifax speech had to be taken seriously, not just as a pitch to Canada, but also as a preview of the message he is expected to take soon to Europe. His salute to Canadians who took in American airline passengers stranded after the Sept. 11 attacks leavened his emphasis on combatting terror. Still, that belated thank-you, and his nod toward multilateralism, did not dilute Bush’s hardedged emphasis on protecting his country.

But Bush’s ability to speak in a way that lets us understand him was never in doubt. The question is whether he managed, however subtly, to alter the way we understand us. The answer might come in the nuances of Canadian foreign and defence policy reviews that are now supposedly nearing completion. Or in how Martin ultimately positions himself on missile defence. Will the Liberal government edge closer to the President’s way of looking at the world? If so, even if Bush is no Churchill, Canadian historians could be quoting his Pier 21 speech decades hence.