Bill Clinton and Jean Chrétien celebrate a close relationship
Straight from the heart
Bill Clinton and Jean Chrétien celebrate a close relationship
As Prime Minister Jean Chrétien showed President Bill Clinton around Parliament Hill last week, pointing out the soaring arches and
stone work of the Centre Block rotunda, it was hard to ignore the evident affection between the two leaders, the undertones of chatter, the warmth in the two-armed handshakes. So taken was Chrétien with his visitor that he even changed his schedule to see Clinton off when Air Force One headed back to Washington at the end of the two-day summit. The sentiment was also apparently shared by the two wives, Aline Chrétien and Hillary Clinton, who went skating together on the Rideau Canal. Chrétien and Clinton did not sing together, but it was all pretty chummy, as the Prime Minister himself acknowledged. ‘When we’re alone,” said Chrétien, “I call him Bill.”
It was a remarkable change of heart from a man who vowed during the 1993 election campaign and after that he was not going to follow Brian Mulroney’s lead and make friends with the president of the United States, that the Canada-U.S. relationship ushered in by the liberals would be a more distant and dignified one. That distance, though, was never more than just show, as the results of the summit itself proved. Trade disputes over culture and agriculture and differences over Cuba were papered over, and a new agreement to expand two-way air travel was hailed as progress in continental free trade. Chrétien and Clinton also took steps to help each other domestically as well, with Clinton offering several remarks on the Quebec issue that indicated an American preference for Canadian unity.
With the Clinton visit coming during the week that Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard returned to Parliament Hill, the national unity question was prominent and Bouchard himself was largely responsible. To the apparent chagrin of Chrétien, Bouchard asked for and received a meeting with Clinton. Such meetings, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher told Maclean’s last week, are “common practice,” have been for years, and there was nothing to read into them. Said Clinton: “I met with Mr. Bouchard because he is the leader of the Opposition. He just happens to be a separatist.”
To help take the sting out of the Bouchard meeting for their Canadian hosts, Clinton also agreed to meet Reform Leader Preston Man-
ning for an equal amount of time—between 20 and 25 minutes. More critical, cameras were barred from the meetings at the Rockcliffe residence of U.S. Ambassador James Blanchard. There was not, therefore, any public photographic record of the fireside chat of the American President and the Quebec separatist that he could use during the coming referendum campaign to soften anxieties that Quebecers might be internationally isolated after independence. The Canadian government also decided at the last minute that it should be represented at the meeting. Foreign Affairs Minister André Ouellet asked Bouchard if he would mind if Raymond Chrétien, the Canadian ambassador in Washington and the Prime Minister’s nephew, sat in. Bouchard agreed. “I’ve nothing to hide,” he said.
It was the first time, Bouchard said, that a
separatist had a chance to sit down with a U.S. president and explain why some Quebecers want independence. It was not that Quebecers were a subjugated people, he explained, but rather a matter of national identity. And he told reporters that he assured Clinton that the process would be democratic and nonviolent and that American interests would not be compromised. “I am absolutely convinced that a sovereign Quebec would change absolutely nothing for the United States,” he said. “It would mean just another neighbor.”
Bouchard did not reveal Clinton’s response. The Bloc Québécois leader, a former Canadian ambassador to Paris, said diplomatic protocol prevented him from saying. Clinton aides did say that Bouchard raised the issue of an independent Quebec’s membership in the
North American Free Trade Association with the President. His press secretary, Mike McCurry, said Clinton told Bouchard the question was hypothetical and that the President “reacted politely and thanked Mr. Bouchard for the opportunity to learn more about the separatist movement.” But one clear indication that Bouchard’s arguments did not cany much weight with the President came later at a gala dinner held among the totem poles at the Museum of Civilization. After a meal of fiddlehead soup and Quebec elk with shallot sauce and wild thyme, Clinton proposed a toast. “Long live Canada, vive le Canada.”
It was the second time that day that Clinton had offered subtle but telling signs that the United States does not look favorably on the potential breakup of the country that has long been its closest ally and most important trading partner. In fact, for close observers of what Washington really thinks about the prospect of Quebec independence, none of that was much of a surprise (page 31). In his speech to a joint session of Parliament, Clinton recited what is known as the American mantra on Canada’s unity problems. While the United States enjoys close relations with
a united Canada, he said, “your political future is, of course, entirely for you to decide.” That got Bloc MPs to their feet, but the Bloc bleachers quickly fell silent as Clinton delivered the kicker, quoting former president Harry Truman’s own words to Parliament in 1947: “Canada’s notable achievement of national unity and progress through accommodation, moderation and forbearance can be studied with profit by sister nations.” Just to make sure that everyone got the point, Clinton added: “Those words ring every bit as true today as they did then.”
The agreement on opening up air transportation is the one piece of summitry that should pay dividends to people on both sides of the border, especially frequent flyers. The culmination of 12 years of often acrimonious negotiations, the accord takes effect immediately and allows both Canadian and U.S. airlines to serve any market they choose at unregulated prices (page 38). Clinton and Chrétien both hailed the agreement as yet another victory for free trade. An American document said it was “based on the same fundamental open-market principles as the North American Free Trade Agreement.” Clinton
said the previous restrictions have “suffocated business” and predicted that the new rules would create jobs and boost air travel and tourism for both countries. “Even the sky is not the limit for our relationship,” Chrétien gushed. The conclusion of the agreement, after such difficult negotiations, was a concrete sign, said Blanchard, that the friendship between Clinton and Chrétien meant closer ties between the two countries. “The fact is that we are signing an open skies agreement that Mulroney and [Ronald] Reagan and [George] Bush were unable to achieve,” he said. “Relations between our governments are probably wider and deeper and stronger than they have ever been.”
In the one unforeseeable departure from Clinton’s well-scripted visit, U.S. Secretary of State Christopher was briefly admitted to Ottawa Civic Hospital with a bleeding ulcer. But even that event was turned to good public relations use by Hillary Clinton. The chief architect of ill-fated reforms that would have given Americans more access to health care, she said that Christopher’s overnight sojourn might give Americans valuable insight into Cana-
da’s universal health-care system. “There has been a lot of disinformation that has been put out across the border,” she said, “so perhaps [Christopher’s illness] will give people more of a chance to learn about the system.”
The presidential visit also demonstrated, yet again, the intricate nature of U.S.-Canada relations. Trade and commerce are the foundation, with $331 billion worth of exports and imports crossing the border last year, up 22 per cent over the previous year. But it is far more than that, embracing an extraordinary spread of activity. “It is the daily business of 28 million Canadians,” York University historian Jack Granatstein, an expert on U.S.Canada relations, said in an interview. “It is the interconnections across a continent.” The connections are not only complex, but complicated—especially for Canada. As Chrétien noted as he introduced Clinton to Parliament: “The Americans are our best friends— whether we like it or not.” As much as Chrétien and Canadians generally might want a more distant relationship with the United States, Granatstein and other observers say it is difficult to keep much distance. “It seems to be simply impossible for us to have anything other than a close relationship with the United States,” Granatstein told Maclean’s. “There really isn’t any option.”
Disputes on trade have often soured the relationship that Clinton and Chrétien were celebrating. But this time, officials from both countries downplayed them as merely irritants. “A lot of the trade acrimony is under control,” said Blanchard. Murray Smith, director of the Centre for Trade Policy and Law in Ottawa, said, however, that the disputes over culture are more serious than they were painted last week. Canadian restrictions have the potential to cause problems because the issue is so highly charged in Canada. But though Chrétien and Clinton did get along well, the Prime Minister’s communications director said the friendship will not soften Canadian positions. “We’re not going to look for trouble but we are going to stand our ground,” said Peter Donolo.
50 far, Canadians seem to like the way Chrétien has approached the United States, with a December, 1994, Environics poll giving Chrétien a 53-per-cent approval rating on his management of cross-border ties. That compares with 25 per cent for Mulroney in March, 1992, when he was preparing to leave office. But according to some experts, what Canadians like most is a relationship that works. As Smith puts it: Canadians like to shake their fist at Americans, but become anxious if the Americans catch them doing it.
51 Taylor, a longtime Canadian diplomat who headed the foreign affairs department in the Mulroney years, says Chrétien has given Canadians exactly what they wanted, the optics of a more dignified relationship. “A good deal of this is style, not substance,” said Taylor. Last week, the style changed.
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