INVITATIONS can be tricky things. When you travel in the Middle East, for example, people you meet on the streets frequently make effusive offers of hospitality, practically begging you to visit their homes and share a meal. Sometimes they mean it. More often they don’t. The invitation is a courtesy, part of an elaborate social ritual: they make magnanimous, you demur, they protest, you make an excuse, and everyone goes home happy.
That’s not to say Paul Martin didn’t actually want the U.S. President to come to Ottawa.
Just that he—like most Canadians—was hoping the eventual guest of honour was going to be John Kerry instead of George W. Bush. Let’s be frank: a clean slate would have made things a helluva lot easier. The protests in the streets would have been smaller (our distrust of American power is so ingrained that even President Ralph Nader would attract
pickets). The risk of wild-eyed, gibbering backbench dissidents disrupting the festivities would be lessened. Canadian concessions on hot-button issues like missile defence or Iraq would be perceived as goodwill gestures rather than flags of surrender. Martin’s promise to rebuild our relationship with the United States would be expediently fulfilled.
But as George Bush the elder once said of the hypothetical: “If a frog had wings, he wouldn’t hit his tail on the ground.” A majority of this country, along with much of the rest of the world, made their electoral preference clear, and it didn’t matter. Sixty-one million Americans cast their ballots to re-elect the President, he increased his share of the vote in every meaningful demographic, and his Republican party cleaned up in the House, Senate and state gubernatorial races. The people have spoken. Canadian fans of Bushpolls suggest 15 to 20 per cent of us would have voted for him—rejoiced. For the rest of us, the only option now is to think of it like
an old school friend who seems to have exercised questionable judgment in selecting a mate. If we want to keep hanging out, we’re going to have to learn how to like or, at the very least, tolerate the person.
Bush, after all, made the first conciliatory move, finally accepting the invitation after four years of giving Canada the high hat. He has even added a special trip to Halifax to thank residents of the Atlantic provinces for taking in thousands of stranded American travellers in the days after 9/11. Republican insiders are describing the trip—the third foreign visit of Bush’s new term, after the APEC summit in Chile and a whistle stop in
Colombia—as an “olive branch” designed to highlight the importance of the relationship between the two countries. And the President has already made good on a promise to ask U.S. bureaucrats to end a mad cow-inspired ban on imports of live Canadian cattle. So what if this Prime Minister, or the one before him for that matter, hasn’t been invited down to the ranch in Crawford, Tex., for a chummy barbeque? This country isn’t ready to go steady.
Now it’s our turn to step back, take a deep breath, and try to remember what we once knew cold. That there’s a middle ground somewhere between “bastards” and “best
friends.” We already agree and effortlessly work together on a host of cross-border concerns. On the more contentious issues, we could go back to that pragmatic, quintessentially Canadian way to manage the relationship: co-operation when necessary, but not necessarily co-operation. Trouble between our respective leaders isn’t new—John F. Kennedy thought John Diefenbaker was an SOB, Richard Nixon was caught on tape calling Pierre Trudeau worse, Lyndon B. Johnson once grabbed Lester Pearson by the lapels and shook him in a fit of rage. Yet the differences of opinion and clashes of personality never seemed to cause lasting damage to
the cross-border friendship. We defiantly steered our own foreign policy course on Cuba, the war in Vietnam, and nuclear disarmament. But on matters the United States deemed crucial to its security—the DEW Line and NORAD, NATO, cruise missile testing—we played along, if not always enthusiastically. And our grand gestures of support were repaid in kind— the Auto Pact, membership in the G7, help at home when we needed it, such as Bill Clinton’s praise for the virtues of Canadian federalism during and after the Quebec referendum.
“Diplomacy is letting someone else have your way,” Pearson, a Nobel-sanctioned master of the art, once noted. A bit of sage counsel the Martin Liberals must be ruminating on after the lukewarm welcome APEC leaders gave their proposals for improving the global response to humanitarian crises, and creating a new “L20” summit of key emerging and developed nations. In a world dominated by one superpower, it’s becoming clear that countries are only as important as the company they keep. Estranged from the United States, without the comfort of a regional block like the European Union, short on military power and money for foreign aid, Canada’s influence has undeniably waned. And Martin’s resolve to stop the slide seems as open to question as his political future. It’s been a while since Bono dropped by to say hello.
In some ways the difficulty is as much Canadian perceptions as U.S. reality. Bush’s demonstrated willingness to go it alone isn’t just a problem for us, it’s a challenge for the whole world, and some nations seem to be dealing with it better than others. This
President’s foreign policy draws on some very old and deep veins of American thinking. “We never lost a war and we never won a conference in our lives,” the cowboy philosopher Will Rogers said in the 1920s. “I believe that we could without any degree of egotism, singlehandedly lick any nation in the world. But we can’t confer with Costa Rica and come home with our shirts on.” Resolutions and compromise proposals at the UN may therefore not be the best way for Canada to advance its opinions, or interests, over the next four years.
Our two countries are more integrated than they’ve ever been before. Since Sept. 11, we’ve co-operated closely on improving security in the air, along the border and the coasts. Millions of us work, play and spend in the United States (and vice versa) every year. It might even be useful to pause and remember the many things
that we actually like about America and Americans. Their gasguzzling SUVs, their winter hot spots, the cultured highs and trashy lows of their entertainment smorgasbord. Indulging our national conceit that an enlightened world view is somehow tied to the colour of your passport, or the party you support, has been fun, but it’s not useful. Yes, most Canadians have difficulty comprehending why Pat Boone-ish residents of red states think Hollywood is a bigger threat to their way of life than an escalating clash of civilizations in Iraq, but we are not alone. Nearly 58 million Americans voted for Kerry, and even more harbour reservations about Bush’s agenda. A CBS News/New York Times poll last week found that only 40 per cent believe the coming four years of Republican rule will bring their country closer together. While 64 per cent think Bush will stack the Supreme Court to make abortion illegal,
78 per cent feel it should remain available, either freely or with some restrictions. A strong majority—67 per cent—feel the President’s focus should be on reducing his US$412-billion budget deficit, rather than cutting taxes as he promised.
No one should be advocating the Prime Minister and President reprise the Shamrock Summit singalong, but it would be nice for Martin to make up his mind about who he wants as the next ambassador in Washington. (Canada’s incumbent diplomat, Michael Kergin, has been hanging fire since his job was offered to John Manley last December.)
And we might want to do something constructive about the periodic over-the-top antiAmerican outbursts of Carolyn Parrish and her ilk—ignore them. These things draw attention south of the border mosdy because we make them such a big part of our national debate.
Our relationship with the United States may have worsened over the last four years, but there’s no indication that the ill feelings are mutual. In a Maclean’s poll this past spring, 74 per cent of U.S. residents said their opinion of Canada remains unchanged. Twelve per cent said it had improved. They described us as “tolerant,” “compassionate” and “funny.” The public concern about Parrish grinding her boot into a Bush doll should be over why the once-scathing This Hour has 22 Minutes thought such a lame bit was funny. What are we going to do if the Air Farce fires the chicken cannon at the President’s picture? Form a Royal Commission?
Since the election, newspapers, magazines and airwaves south of the border have been filled with stories about Americans
who want to immigrate to Canada. Lawyers are giving how-to seminars in major U.S. cities,
Internet traffic on the main page of Citizenship and Immigration Canada increased sixfold the day after the U.S. election, there’s an almost-serious website where Americans can advertise for a Canuck mate. Late-night TV hosts, columnists and talk-radio jocks have also had a lot of fun at our expense. A mock immigration form in The New Yorker (by Ontario-born satirist Bruce McCall) revisited all of the hoary clichés, warning applicants: “Canada is a pretty nice country, but not perfect by any stretch: Winters can be long and quite cold. There’s not much to do on Sundays. Hugging and kissing in public is frowned upon.” In both the news and humour, the themes are consistent. Canada is a pleasant, if rather bland place. The locals are friendly. We have free health care and really, really like hockey.
Being belligerent hasn’t changed the stereotype, and occupying the moral high ground hasn’t provided any advantage at the bargaining table. There’s no deal on softwood, the border is still closed to our cattle, our dreams of new world institutions like an international criminal court remain reveries. Bush’s visit is an opportunity to put our concerns back on the American—and the global—agenda. We should smile a lot and show him a good time. Maybe politely point out that our prescription drugs aren’t poisonous, and that medicare works pretty well. In four years, the people of the United States will go to the ballot box again, and perhaps choose a leader more to our liking. In the meantime, we should move on. Making nice isn’t appeasement, it’s the Canadian thing to do. Hfl
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