World

No Gretzky, no Jordan just Jean and Bill

Andrew Phillips October 11 1999
World

No Gretzky, no Jordan just Jean and Bill

Andrew Phillips October 11 1999

No Gretzky, no Jordan just Jean and Bill

Washington

Andrew Phillips

Who says the anonymous officials who labour behind the scenes to make sure things go smoothly when prime ministers and presidents get together have no imagination? As they planned this weeks meeting between Jean Chrétien and Bill Clinton, they had a brainstorm. On Friday, the Big Guys are going to Mont-Tremblant, Que., where Clinton is to deliver a speech at an international confab on federalism. They both love golf; Mont-Tremblant has a great course. Why not get a couple of other famous golf enthusiasts to make up a stellar foursome? Why not get, say, Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky? Calls were made. As it turned out, Gretzky couldn’t make it—so another great initiative in cross-border diplomacy bit the dust.

Maybe just as well. “I’m not sure the President and the Prime Minister would have appreciated being upstaged,” an official familiar with the planning mused last week. As it turns out, then, Chrétien and Clinton will have to content themselves with more routine matters in what will be only the third time one has made a formal visit to the other’s capital in the past six years. And the President is hardly going to linger. After Hillary Clinton’s six-hour touchdown in Ottawa last week for a conference of leaders’ wives (squeezed in between campaign stops in New York state), her husband will be in and out of Canada in a matter of 18 hours—sleep time included.

Never mind. No doubt it will be quality time, built around Clinton’s closing address to the conference on federalism in Mont-Tremblant. It’s a policy wonk’s dream, 372 days of musings by ministers and academics from a score of countries. The leaders of Canada, the United States and Mexico will be there—so it must be important. The Quebec government is understandably wary about this international celebration of the federalist principle in its backyard, but it need fear no lectures from Washington. The White House last week pointedly noted that the President will speak about federalism “in the United States.” So expect no fireworks as Clinton reflects on his experiences at both the state level (as governor of Arkansas) and as head of the U.S. central government. Ottawa knows that just by showing up, Clinton lends his considerable credibility to an exercise designed to show that federalism is a living, evolving idea— not the straitjacket that Quebec separatists like to paint it.

“He doesn’t have to say anything directly,” notes an organizer. “He just has to be there.” The President will make a few other stops as well. In Ottawa he will dedicate the new American Embassy adjacent to Parliament Hill, a building that is getting a decidedly chilly welcome even before it officially opens. (Agitated letter writers to the Ottawa Citizen have denounced it as a “monstrous fortress,” “an ugly, squat, monolithic block of cement,” and “the worst bunker-style building in the city.”) And of course Clinton will meet privately with Chrétien to hash over “the relationship.” They can claim with considerable justification that it is in good shape—as it almost always is when the top men get together.

The trick is to have the big fights between summits, and make sure they’re over by the time the grip-and-grin photos are taken. Since Chrétien visited Washington in April, 1997, two significant disputes have flared up—and died down. Ottawa and Washington finally worked out an agreement on Pacific salmon (U.S. ferries no longer risk being held hostage by B.C. fishermen), and in May the Chrétien government gave in to Washington’s assault on legislation protecting Canadian magazines. Those were tough fights, but there are no comparable disputes now to sour the mood.

In fact, Canadian and U.S. officials say the leaders will use their brief gettogether to make progress on one of the few thorny issues between them. Last spring, the Clinton administration severely curtailed Canada’s once-favoured status for cross-border defence and aerospace contracts. Washington suddenly ended its six-decade-old special relationship with Ottawa in defence technology, arguing that secrets shared with Canadian companies were leaking to potentially hostile third countries, such as China and Iran. That put at risk as much as $1 billion a year in high-tech exports from Canada to the United States. At the same time, the Americans denied permits that would allow a sophisticated Canadian surveillance satellite, Radarsat 2, to be launched in the United States. Washington isn’t expected to reverse course, but the Prime Minister and the President may well announce a compromise that will soften the impact on Canadian firms.

That wouldn’t be a bad day’s work. They might even want to celebrate with a round of golf.