Columns

Canada and the presidency

Andrew Phillips June 12 2000
Columns

Canada and the presidency

Andrew Phillips June 12 2000

Canada and the presidency

Washington

Andrew Phillips

At least one thing’s clear about American politics: given their druthers, Canadians generally would rather have a Democrat than a Republican over for dinner. Democrats, as a rule, are more inclined to support social programs and “progressive” values. They’re less inclined to treat government like the enemy, execute people or insist on saying a prayer before the meal. In a word, they’re more like us.

All of which gave a superficial plausibility to a report in the National Post last week that Raymond Chrétien, Canada’s ambassador in Washington, had tilted heavily to Al Gore (Democrat) over George W. Bush (Republican) in assessing Canada’s stakes in the U.S. presidential election. Chrétien, it

went, had all but endorsed Gore in remarks before a conference of senior civil servants in Ottawa: “We know Vice-President Gore. He knows us. He’s a friend of Canada.”

Bush, on the other hand, doesn’t know much about the country, as evidenced by his instantly notorious comment to Rick Mercer of This Hour Has 22 Minutes welcoming the support of Prime Minister “Jean Poutine.” (Even that’s a bit of a bum rap. It was Mercer who shouted a question about “Poutine” at a noisy campaign event. Bush just didn’t correct him.)

The ambassador’s office, of course, denies the implication that Ottawa is rooting for Gore. Chrétien was, they said, just weighing the implications for Canada—and in fact he is much too experienced a diplomat

and too canny a politician to do anything so interesting as commit himself definitively either way. But Chrétiens remarks did raise an important question: do we, as they say down South, have a dog in this fight?

Gore, as the ambassador noted, does have a strong personal reason to feel warm towards Canada. In April, 1989, his son, Albert III, was struck by a car and severely injured as they were leaving an Orioles’ baseball game in Baltimore. The boy was just 6 at the time; he suffered a broken thigh and shoulder blade, as well as an injured spleen, lung and kidney. Three months after surgery he still could not use his right arm.

Gore, at the time a senator from Tennessee, searched all over the world for the best doctor for his son. Finally, he contacted Dr. Alan Hudson, then chief of neurosurgery at Toronto General Hospital, now president of Toronto’s University Health Network. In July, 1989, Hudson and an

American colleague successfully operated on the boy in New Orleans, after Hudson advised Gore that it would be politically wiser for Gore if the work was done in the United States.

According to Chrétien (exaggerating quite a bit), “he is still grateful for Canada to have saved the life of his son.” That and three dollars, however, will get you a fancy coffee at Starbucks. Canadians shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for favours from President Gore (if that’s how things turn out). The cross-border relationship is much too important to both sides to turn on sentiment.

And on the issues, it’s not at all clear that President Gore would be better for Canada than President Bush, redux. It

was under Republicans Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr., after all, that Washington and Ottawa reached their historic free trade deals. Gore is also a free trader, but his close ties to big U.S. unions pull him in a more protectionist direction. Bush, by contrast, is firmly in his party’s big-business, protrade wing. He’s more likely to win support in Congress for “fast-track” authority to negotiate new deals, like the proposed “Free Trade Area of the Americas” that Canada supports. And while Bush may not be familiar with Canada (he’s never visited, says his office), he has a strong foreign policy team that includes many people from his father’s administration. They know us well.

Gore is stronger on the environment than Bush, which could be both good and

bad for Canada. He might fight new efforts in Congress to open environmentally sensitive parts of Alaska, bordering Yukon, to oil drilling. But a Gore administration might also push harder than Ottawa likes for big reductions in continental air pollution—with Ontario singled out as a major contributor. Bush, meanwhile, is proposing a more ambitious missile defence plan than the Clinton-Gore administration. A Bush Pentagon would likely step up pressure on Ottawa to go along with “Star Wars II.”

Another big unknown is who will control Congress. It was Republicans on Capitol Hill who gave Ambassador Chrétien some of his worst headaches over the past few years, on issues like Cuba and border controls. The Democrats need to pick up just six seats in November to win back the House of Representatives. And that could be as important to Canada as a change of party at the White House.