SPECIAL REPORT

FIELDS OF FORCE

MARCI MCDONALD July 3 1989
SPECIAL REPORT

FIELDS OF FORCE

MARCI MCDONALD July 3 1989

FIELDS OF FORCE

SPECIAL REPORT

ESSAY

CANADA AND THE STATES A CONTINENT, A HISTORY AND A LANGUAGE, BUT NOTA DREAM

MARCI MCDONALD

On the Old West Trail, better known as North Dakota Highway 3, signs of good neighborliness punctuated the grainfields with periodic reassurance. In the town of Rugby, where a 20-foot fieldstone obelisk in a gas station parking lot marks the geographical centre of North America, the Canadian Maple Leaf flag floated beside the American Stars and Stripes in the summer wind, offering a wordless reminder that the continent is in fact amiably shared. Only 70 km north, past the Canadian-American Bar and the two-storey-high bottle of Canadian Club outside a duty-free liquor shop, that reality took more substantial form. There, on 2,300 acres of Manitoba and North Dakota woodland set aside as the International Peace Garden, the world’s longest undefended border sliced across the middle of a geranium bed just as it does across the continent itself—virtually unmarked and unheeded. In fact, so routinely does Wilfred Bodien, a retired U.S. railway worker from nearby Lake Metigoshe, N.D., cross it in his camper that he scoffed at the notion of national distinctions. “There’s not a damn bit of difference,” he said. “Heck, I go down every winter to Texas, and once you get south of San Antonio, that’s where you think you’re in a foreign country.”

Still, even in that continental heartland that Canadians call the Prairies and Americans glamorize as the Great Plains, appearances can be deceiving. On either side of the point where state Highway 3 turned into provincial Highway 10, the landscape rolled out to the horizon, flat and relentless. North of the 49th parallel, the vistas were differentiated only by familiar clichés: orderly Manitoba road signs announcing the approach of a trash bin and a moosecrossing. But only a few kilometres south of the border, North Dakota’s fields of hard amber durum wheat were studded with eight-foot fences enclosing a more sinister crop: the silos of 150 Minutemen III missiles sown beneath 8,000 square miles of soil around Minot Air Force Base.

Armed with three atomic warheads each and backed up by a squadron of B-52 bombers, the intercontinental ballistic missiles (iCBMs) hunker beneath their concrete lids on 24-hour alert, targeted on the Soviet Union where a battery of SS-18s is aimed back at them. In between, like some unwitting buffer zone, lies a nation that phased out its last nuclear warhead in July, 1984, and periodically breaks out in what a Pentagon official

once scornfully termed “the nuclear allergy.”

To cultivate goodwill, the base invites the public every August to “Northern Neighbors Day.” But for some neighbors, such as Winnipeg university student Chantelle Deslauriers, the hospitality cannot dispel a lingering dread. “You realize all they have to do is push a button and it’s the end of the world,” she said. “That’s why Canadians are so fearful of Americans: they’re so powerful.”

In fact, as Canadians attempt to redefine their approach to their continental roommates under a historic new Free Trade Agreement, that ICBM field is a significant metaphor for the differences in the relationship traditionally hailed as special—in the diplomatic sense—but never equal. No two nations have found their fates so inextricably intertwined by geographic, economic and strategic necessity; no two peoples are more profoundly linked by cultural or emotional ties. But even $186.4 billion in goods and services exchanged last year in the world’s largest trading partnership cannot obscure another reality: on one side of the border is an unmilitaristic middle power occupying 46.6 per cent of the continent with one-tenth of the population; on the other is an economic and military superpower with a messianic sense of destiny, capable of global annihilation.

That inequity has led novelist Margaret Atwood to note that the world’s longest undefended border is an inaccuracy. In fact, says the Toronto author, what separates Canada and the United States is the world’s longest oneway mirror. While Canadians gaze south, often obsessive in both their fascination with, and fears of, the American colossus, they frequently find it difficult to even rouse U.S. attention. As Chicago mobster AÍ Capone once summed up his countrymen’s lack of interest: “I don’t even know what street Canada is on.”

One of the best reflections of the imbalance is the catchphrase by which External Affairs officials have long characterized Washington’s attitude to Ottawa: benign neglect. And even now, the two countries’ diplomatic bureaucracies present a telling measure of the significance each accords the other. From a postwar staff of two, the department’s U.S. division has grown to an entire branch with a staff of 126; at the state department, five officers under a

deputy assistant secretary man the Canada desk, tucked into the portfolio of an assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs. The final three words of that title were added only in 1983 after Ottawa pointed out that it was not in Europe.

No American president could ever borrow—and turn on its head—the observation once offered by Prime Minister Lester Pear-

son: “Worry about the Americans and their friendly pressures is still probably the strongest unifying Canadian force.” But since the founding of the country, American pressures, not always friendly ones, have given Canadians frequent cause for unease. Only three years after Confederation, when Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald had ordered the seizure of U.S. fishing boats in disputed waters, President Ulysses S. Grant stormed into a cabinet meeting and declared, “Take Canada—and wipe out her commerce.” And one of his successors, President Benjamin Harrison, expressed a desire to annex the country. Not until 1943, when Franklin Roosevelt came to call on

his friend William Lyon Mackenzie King, did a president visit Ottawa.

But their unlikely chemistry proved to be an exception. Canadian leaders since have often found themselves buffeted by the winds of indifference from the south. After a meeting with President Dwight Eisenhower—who had previously twice referred to “the great Republic of Canada”—Pearson left, surprised that his U.S. counterpart lacked any awareness of Canadian issues. Said the Prime Minister of a matter that had been under discussion: “You’d think his caddy would have mentioned it to him.”

John F. Kennedy mispronounced John Diefenbaker’s name. And his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, took credit for defeating the Conservative leader in the 1963 elections after contradicting his assertions on defence. As Bundy later wrote to President Lyndon Johnson: “I myself have been sensitive to the need for being extra polite to Canadians ever since George Ball and I knocked over the Diefenbaker government by one incautious press release.” Johnson incarnated the recurring Canadian concern that the muscular next-door neighbor might suddenly turn into a bully. A day after Pearson had criticized the U.S. bombing of Hanoi in a Philadelphia speech, the President was fuming as he entertained the Prime Minister at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. Abruptly ending the silence that had chilled their lunch, he led Pearson onto the porch, grabbed him by the shirt collar and, at the climax of an hourlong harangue, bellowed, “You ¿ pissed on my rug!”

As James Reston, former columnist for The New York Times, noted in 1971: “In its relations with the United States these days, Canada feels a little bit like a woman having an affair with the big, rich man next door. She depends on him and he’s a good provider, but he has a roving eye and a lot of other offers elsewhere.” Although the metaphor has proven to be a durable one, that year Nixon had slapped a 10-per-cent across-the-board surcharge on all U.S. imports, devastating Canadian industries and leaving the country looking for some other offers itself. His action led thenPrime Minister Pierre Trudeau to say that Canadians should never again become so dependent on one market—particularly one presided over by a suitor such as Nixon, who called

THE RELATIONSHIP HAS BEEN CALLED SPECIAL, BUT NEVER EQUAL

him an “asshole” and mistakenly referred to Japan as America’s largest trading partner.

But Trudeau’s attempts to gain greater access to Europe and Asia as part of a so-called Third Option never succeeded in replacing “the big, rich man next door.” And his subsequent efforts to protect domestic resources with a National Energy Program and a Foreign Investment Review Agency unleashed a cycle of retaliatory tariffs and frosty relations. In fact, it is hardly surprising that the president who made a free trade agreement with Canada one of his administration’s chief economic priorities was a man whose free market credo Trudeau had most offended—

Ronald Reagan.

When the newly elected Republican arrived in Ottawa for his first encounter with Trudeau in March, 1981, he met the worst reception of any president in history. On Parliament Hill, demonstrators jeered his campaign assertion that acid rain was caused by trees. But Trudeau, evidently embarrassed over the unprecedented protests, quickly found his sympathy giving way to disbelief: the actorpresident’s contribution to a discussion of the Middle East was to tell an Israeli joke.

Within three years, Reagan’s undersecretary of state for political affairs, Lawrence Eagleburger, had returned the disdain. He dismissed Trudeau’s 1983 peace initiative to mediate Soviet-American tensions after the U.S.S.R’s shooting down of

Korean Air Lines Flight 007 as “akin -

to pot-induced behavior by an erratic lefty.” But Brian Mulroney’s decisive capture of 24 Sussex Drive a year later brought a belated realization to members of the Reagan White House: the politicial centre north of the border was further to the left than it was in the United States. They were clearly taken aback to discover that even a Conservative prime minister—not to mention one who could so cosily swap Irish jokes with Reagan—held sacrosanct such programs as universal health insurance and regional subsidies that some Democrats considered to be radically liberal or socialist.

That astonishment was quickly compounded by shock when last year’s free trade debate unleashed a torrent of nationalism that caught state department officials off guard. As Rozarme Ridgway, then assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs, acknowledged later, “There was surprise at the extent to which there was a rather passionate feeling about the relationship.” To many Canadians, the surprise was that the U.S. administration had not seen the firestorm gathering

force. It was as if Washington had ignored the 1985 furor when the U.S. Coast Guard’s Polar Sea bulldozed its way through the ice of the Northwest Passage—threatening Canadian assumptions of Arctic sovereignty.

During the bitter free trade debate, perhaps nothing illustrated the two countries’ contrasting preoccupations better than the fact that in Canada, U.S. negotiator Peter Murphy’s name became a household word. Meanwhile, in the

U.S. capital—a breeding ground for bureaucratic stardom—he remained just another anonymous trade technocrat. To those Americans who noticed, the free trade proposal was primarily a technical tool that would serve as both a carrot and stick to provoke the rest of the globe into a new round of multilateral trade talks. Many never could understand that in Canada it had loomed as the most fundamental decision on national identity that the country would likely make for the remainder of the century—an issue, as such critics as writer Robertson Davies saw it, of whether the government was “signing away Canada’s soul.” Now, with the agreement signed, a newly elected George Bush has opened the way to removing the last thorn in the side of the bilateral relationship by unveiling legislation aimed at reducing acid rain. But even with a president who appears to be the most sensitive to Canadian concerns since Franklin Roosevelt, Atwood’s metaphor of a one-way looking glass seems apt. In Washington, the subject of free trade with Canada is closed. But in Ottawa,

where the Commons Question Period still regularly erupts with outrage over plant closings and the country’s plummeting merchandise trade surplus with the United States, a new phase of the debate appears to have only begun.

To Americans, that reaction is baffling, smacking of anti-Americanism. As Carl Flagstad of the Minot Daily News pointed out, that bewilderment can surface even in a region where the north-south ties in both countries have always outstripped those with east or west and people like himself keep their radio dials tuned to the CBC. For example, North Dakotans were baffled by the vehemence of Manitoba’s objections to the Garrison Diversion project—a $ 1.2-billion irrigation scheme

for the state—which was finally shelved in 1985, 20 years after it was approved by Congress. The province charged that by diverting Missouri River waters over the continental divide, it would flood Canadian rivers with American pollution, parasites and so-called rough fish, which would destroy the more peacable Canadian species. Said Flagstad: “They visualized all sorts of bad things coming in. Up till then, North Dakotans had always considered Canadians just plain folks like us— except they pronounced certain words kind of silly.”

Those differing reactions can be traced back to the countries’ roots. In fact, as former Trudeau aide Thomas Axworthy has noted, Canada was in a sense born anti-American— defining itself by its continuing refusal of the American Dream. While the United States fought its way to liberty, Canada evolved to nationhood by declining that invitation to revolution. Throwing off the yoke of European tyranny, the first Americans showed a distrust of big government, even their own. They

spelled out in their constitution the right to bear arms, a clause that has led to an almost visceral fear of gun control—and a markedly higher homicide rate. Canadians, content under the British wing for nearly another century—and faced with the challenge of a more hostile northern climate—came to prize consensus and survival.

Caught between the United Kingdom and the United States, Canada slipped into the role of global peacemaker. And its citizenry places more trust in multilateral mechanisms such as the United Nations than do more individualistic Americans. But memory of revolution nourished the U.S. appetite for military might, which seems so alien to many Canadians, the leading defence penny-pinchers in the Western alliance after Luxembourg. And those national proclivities have fed marked policy differences. Last year, the B-52s at Minot Air Force Base began arming themselves with cruise missiles, the very weapons that 60 per cent of Canadians had opposed testing—even unarmed—over their frozen lands to the north. And in June, a Minot Chamber of Commerce delegation went to Washington to make an appeal unthinkable north of the 49th parallel—asking for

yet another infusion of nuclear weapons, the rail-based MX “Peacekeeper” missile.

As French writer André Malraux has noted, “The mind supplies the idea of a nation, but what gives that idea its sentimental force is a community of dreams.” And perhaps no nation has dreamed louder—or in more glorious technicolor—than the one that appropriated the name of a continent for itself. Taking the unglamorous story line of a tax revolt by 13 disparate and disputatious colonies, the U.S. founding fathers spun a script celebrating their exploits as an experiment in national destiny.

Since then, it has held generations in thrall, from the visiting French bureaucrat Alexis de Tocqueville—who sang the praises of American democracy in 1835—to the Chinese students who raised a handmade tribute to the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square during this last heartbreaking Beijing spring.

The creation of heroes and symbols was a conscious effort at myth-making by a country which, through Hollywood, would later turn out dreams for the world. But north of the border, where Canadians would be hard pressed to locate a statue that symbolized their aspirations, a national mythology has never emerged. Canada

did not even have its own flag until 1965 nor control of its own Constitution until seven years ago. And Canadians cast a wary eye on some of the trappings and noisier expressions of patriotism by their extroverted neighbors, eager to export the American way. But one of the many paradoxes underlining the complex bilateral relationship is that, in comparisons of voter turnout alone, Canadians more faithfully practise the democratic ideals that Americans constantly preach.

In John Irving’s new novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, a Toronto minister observes: “It’s very American to have opinions as strong as your opinions. It’s very Canadian to distrust strong opinions.” But the free trade debate showed that Canadians—who have so long thought themselves incapable of articulating a national identity—could summon some very strong opinions when they feared that their government might surrender a measure of sovereignty to their neighbor. Now, as they face the challenge of linking their fate more closely with the United States in a future yet to be charted, strong opinions may be all the more necessary to safeguard the national differences that for more than a century have provided an amicable recipe for continental cohabitation.

As Canadian leaders have often pointed out, those differences ought not to be mistaken for anti-Americanism. Indeed, it was Lester Pearson who noted that sharing a continent with the United States could only be compared to “living with your wife.” Added Pearson: “At times it is difficult to live with her. At all times it is impossible to live without her.”