Returning from a Washington visit some 20 years ago, an easygoing Lester Pearson, then prime minister of Canada, contemplated a question about his sometimes testy alliance with President Lyndon Johnson.
He talked at length about personal relationships, shrugged a few times, paused for a moment and added this afterthought: “Actually, it’s probably not that important. Canada’s relationship with the United States is too complex to be affected by the personalities of a couple of itinerant politicians.” He chortled. “We’re just the showbiz end.” Pearson was a master at selfdeprecation.
But anyone who has even passing interest in—to coin a phrase—the longest undefended border in the world must realize this prime minister of the 1960s was only partially exaggerating. As one who successfully campaigned against John Diefenbaker by promising to improve Canada-U.S. relations, and as one who was later virtually assaulted by a furious Lyndon Johnson, Pearson knew whereof he spoke.
And as a former Canadian ambassador in Washington, he also knew about things that go on backstage.
But he was neither the first nor last Canadian politician to stump the country in the cause of—and here we coin again—cementing the bonds of friendship with the Americans. Sir John A. Macdonald was the first, Brian Mulroney was the last, and in between we had onetime Social Credit Leader Robert Thompson saying, “The Americans are our best friends whether we like it or not.”
However, right now, for the obvious reason of timing, we can concentrate on Mulroney. And, no, we won’t take another shot at the Shamrock Summit and the paralysing embarrassment of the high-level singsong that closed the $750,000 gala. Sorry I even mentioned it.
But since I did, I suspect there are those private moments when even the Prime Minister surely wonders whether there is a future in showbiz. Despite two years of singing, handshaking, backslapping, commitments of eternal friendship and “Call me Ron,” there is precious little to suggest a new era has dawned. Matter of fact, it’s difficult to recall a period when so many irritants flew across that great undefended border. If we throw in the fish fight, we can even go beyond the actual border.
In fairness, we could pause here to point out that irritations between the two countries might now be far worse if anyone but Mulroney were in office. But that being hypothetical, we won’t pursue it. And anyway, it was Mulroney who devoted so much of his 1984 election campaign promising to improve relations with the Americans. His stated and restated commitment was “to restore harmony and co-operation with the United States.”
The Americans should love us. Soon after being elected, our Prime Minister went to New York, declared, “Canada is open for business,” and set about proving it. Apart from everything else, we’ve thrown out the National Energy Program, we dismantled the dreaded Foreign Investment Review Act and we brought in drug patent legislation, long sought by Washington. And never have Americans been treated to more reminders about Canada being their “best friend.”
iCanada's relationship with the United States is too complex to be affected by a couple of itinerant politicians'
After Pierre Trudeau’s resolute restraint in this respect, one would have expected Mulroney’s wonderous words and deeds to bring us great geysers of gratitude from below the border.
But as things stand, what do we have to show for our efforts? Well, and not necessarily in order of importance, we have a sizzling little spat over cedar shakes and shingles, with spin-offs reaching into cornfields, pigpens, vegetable gardens, auto plants, fishing grounds and libraries. And just as we try to strike a free trade deal with Washington, American legislators are becoming apostles of protectionism. Enough?
Okay, there have also been persistent reports that the Americans have been playing around in our sovereign Arctic waters with their sneaky little submarines. And concerned ministers are less than loquacious when it comes to telling us whether such subs sought
or were granted permission. Something to do with security, they say.
Here’s one for you: why is it that when a Russian bomber is intercepted by our fighters just off the coast, the defence department ensures that every newspaper in the country has an eightby-ten glossy photo the next day. But we are not supposed to know whether an American sub, manned by our best friends, visited the Arctic any time in the last two years. Our security is, if nothing else, somewhat selective.
“Hello Yuri, we need a new recruiting poster and would sure appreciate a photo-op with one of your bombers on the first sunny day, preferably with a Hibernia oil rig in the background.”
That digression mysteriously takes us to the arms-to-Iran-and-money-tothe-contras scandal, complete with the inevitable “Canadian connection.” Just as navigation comes naturally to the Portuguese, we are a nation of inherent connectors. This is the second time for Iran in just seven years, the first being known as a “caper.”
But the Americans, perhaps anxious to avoid upsetting their best friends during the Christmas season, kindly kept us in the dark about the latest Canadian connection. For our federal government, not to mention the fledgling Canadian Security Intelligence Service, it has been a horrendous humiliation.
In the Commons, under persistent opposition questioning, various cabinet ministers had to profess ignorance. And you can only guess how the average politician feels as he/she stands in Parliament to talk about something he/she never heard of. It’s far worse than his/her having no clothes.
Naturally, the Liberals and New Democrats have been busy prefacing their questions with references to Mulroney’s “special relationship” with President Reagan. Trouble is, Reagan might have known even less than his best friends. And if he did know, some suggest, chances are he forgot. How’s that for a comforting conclusion?
There could be a growing problem here for Mulroney in the next two years. Whatever happens in the Iran hearings, the President’s stature, and his clout, are almost certainly destined to diminish. When this occurs, unfair as it might be, it’s invariably best friends who are the first to suffer.
Allan Fotheringham is on vacation.
Stewart MacLeod is Ottawa columnist for Thomson News Service.
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