Balance is crucial in Canada-U.S. relationship


Frank Underhill was a noted Canadian historian a half century ago, even if he is now almost forgotten. But he wrote one sentence that still rings true: “Canadians, he said, were the first anti-Americans, the ideal anti-Americans, the anti-Americans as they exist in the mind of God.”

In no period of Canadian history was that description so exactly right as in the years after 1968. Pierre Trudeau became prime minister that year. He was a new kind of leader, an intellectual who dressed well and dated beautiful women. But unlike most Canadian leaders he did not understand the United States, and he believed that Canada should be as distant from the U.S. as from the Soviet Union. He had to deal with President Richard Nixon, no easy task, and Nixon was very unpopular in Canada. Trudeau had to handle rising Canadian nationalism, and his government put in place the Foreign Investment Review Agency to control Americans buying out Canadian companies. And although Trudeau was in office when Moscow was in an aggressive phase, he cut the Canadian Forces’ contribution to European defence in half and soon scrapped Canada’s nuclear weapons. None of this pleased the U.S.

Trudeau left office in 1984, and Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney took power. Mulroney was no Trudeau – he set out to make friends with President Ronald Reagan and to declare that Canada “was open for business” again. And so it was. Under Mulroney, Canada and the United States struck a Free Trade Agreement in 1988, a massive trade and economic deal that was the first of its kind since the 1850s. And whenever Mulroney could do so, he worked closely with U.S. leaders on foreign and defence policy. Canada was a smaller power, but Mulroney demonstrated that a prime minister could get substantial influence by playing his hand with skill. Some, for example, give Mulroney much credit for German reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But many Canadians hated that Mulroney seemed to be in bed with the Americans, and he was easily the most unpopular Canadian leader in history when he left office in 1993. His successor, after the election that year, was Jean Chrétien, a Liberal who led a very anti-American party. Chrétien clearly understood that Canada had to get on with the U.S. – the Canadian economy was too closely linked for it to be otherwise – but with the Cold War over, the defence relationship with the U.S. seemed less important. Also, he had President Bill Clinton to deal with, and Clinton was able, intelligent and personable, much easier to get on with than presidents like Nixon and Reagan. So Chrétien talked publicly about keeping his distance from the U.S., but played golf with Clinton – with whom he was on friendly terms – whenever he could.

However, his government annoyed Washington frequently. One issue was an international treaty to ban land mines, pushed by foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy. Another was the plan for an International Criminal Court to try war criminals. Both were good ideas but for various reasons the United States refused to support them; Axworthy’s openly anti-American sentiments did not make it any easier to get U.S. support.

Then when George W. Bush became president in January 2001, relations became even more difficult between Ottawa and Washington. Canada opened its airports to airplanes caught in mid-flight by the al-Qaida attacks on the United States, but Chrétien seemed cool in expressing Canadian sympathy for the U.S. losses. Chrétien did provide an infantry battalion to support the American effort in Afghanistan in 2002, but his government flatly refused to participate in the Iraq War in 2003, instead sending troops back to Kabul, the Afghan capital. The Americans had not received United Nations approval for the war against Saddam Hussein’s regime, he said. That was true, but a very anti-war and anti-American Quebec was in the midst of an election and that may have helped shape Ottawa’s response. So too did the very strong anti-Bush sentiment all across the nation. Anti-Americanism was at its peak, and the government did nothing to check it.

The point is that a wise Canada must always consider American concerns when it acts. With 80 per cent of its trade with the U.S., delays at the American border can hurt the economy. With its defence depending on American military support, Canada needs to be aware of how the U.S. sees global threats.

Balance is everything. Canadians want to be independent, and they are not Americans, not now, not ever. But they cannot be so anti-American that their words and actions hurt them. Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien perhaps pushed the limits of acceptable anti-Americanism, just as Brian Mulroney sometimes seemed to go too far in the other direction. Again, balance is everything, and the most successful Canadian leaders understand always that Canada must be on good terms with the United States.

But not too good.

Historian J.L. Granatstein is editor of The Canadian Experience. He writes on Canada-U.S. relations, foreign policy and defence.

Next Installment: Canada’s World, Pearson’s World

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services/Lingua Ads partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at The Canadian Experience is copyright © 2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.

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