The US: Canada's national obsession

Now where on the axis of evil can we be? The country’s long-reigning leader thinks the president of the United States is contemptible, a sentiment heartily reciprocated. The leader’s official spokeswoman directly insulted President George W Bush, and she was repudiated only grudgingly.

Almost every day some new outrage perpetrated by the US is reported in the newspapers, whereupon the Americans are denounced by commentators and letter-writers.
Academics travelling across the country on book-promotion tours say they are astounded by the level of anti-American vituperation out in the hinterland.

Top-level relations with Washington, it is agreed, are at their worst level in decades. Can this mean war?

Well, maybe not. This is Canada we’re talking about.

Every country in the world is screwed up about its relationship with the US. But in Canada it is a national obsession, even a neurosis. Imagine, if you will, a homely kind of girl — well-liked but usually ignored — who lives next door to the town hunk. He is the centre of all her thoughts. She reads major significance into every gesture. She despises his unruly ways but, deep down, desperately wants to believe this is true love. He barely even gives her a thought. In romantic fiction, you end up with a white wedding and happy-ever-aftering. In international diplomacy, you get the US-Canada relationship.

This is a tricky subject for a non-Canadian to address because everyone outside the country traditionally considers the very word ‘Canada” to convey the uttermost tediousness. In the US, the most boring imaginable headline is held to be: ‘Canada! Friendly giant to the north!”

This is an absurdity. Canada’s tedium is a by-product of its success. Despite the country’s geographical, ethnic and linguistic unwieldiness, it has made itself into perhaps the most functional democracy on Earth. It is prosperous and (according to the recent Pew Centre international survey) remarkably contented. The crime rate is low, and the general tenor of day-to-day life polite and good-natured. Both at home and abroad, it pre-empts the possibility of conflict by a disposition to negotiate at great length.

Therein lies both the boredom, and the current anti-American feeling. The idea of an inessential war against Iraq is widely regarded as insane. The most startling recent poll showed 84% of Canadians consider the US wholly (15%) or partly (69%) to blame for September 11. It is a remarkable indication of fundamental antipathy.

Furthermore, the Bush administration has compounded this with a series of gratuitously casual snubs. When the president spoke to Congress after the attacks and praised British Prime Minister Tony Blair to the skies, Canada — whose cooperation was crucial to the return to any kind of post-attack normality — was forgotten. When four Canadian soldiers were killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, the American response was slow and brusque.

North of the border, these incidents send the letter-writers bananas.

Some of the trouble stems from the awful relationship between Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who was less skilful than Blair in keeping his preference for Al Gore quiet during the 2000 election. Bush at least appears to know who Chretien is: only 8% of American adults, in the most recent poll, could name the neighbouring country’s leader, and even that number suggests a sample skewed towards Harvard — the usual figure is around 2%, with an undertow of support for Pierre Trudeau, who happens to be dead. Even so, only one-in-five knew that Ottawa was Canada’s capital.

These kind of polls, always well-publicised in Canada, add to the Canadians’ contempt for their neighbours.

When Chretien’s spokeswoman, Françoise Ducros, called Bush a ‘moron” last year, the significant fact is not the remark — which is common global currency — but the circumstances. She said it to a Canadian journalist, in a manner that suggested she was saying something that was obvious, rather than something that could cause any embarrassment. Had she not been overheard by a less sympathetic reporter, it would have gone unreported.

Chretien accepted her resignation slowly and reluctantly. Essentially, Canadians regard all Americans as morons, unless proven otherwise. It is probably only that sense of moral superiority that stops the nation turning into a jibbering wreck.

‘For nearly eight years Chretien had [Bill] Clinton to deal with,” says one of the US’s few Canada experts, Chris Sands, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. ‘Love him or hate him, Clinton could make anyone feel like the most important person in the room, from the prime minister of Lithuania to Monica Lewinsky. Bush is not a softener of disparities and that’s been really hard for Canada. They are made to feel they are no longer peers.”

Of course, they never were peers and these neighbouring leaders — possessing what is always said to be the world’s longest unguarded border — have often loathed each other. The crusty conservative John Diefenbaker was contemptuous of the whippersnapper John F Kennedy. When Diefenbaker’s successor, Lester Pearson, made an anti-Vietnam war speech in the US, Lyndon Johnson allegedly grabbed him by the lapels and warned him not to ‘piss on my rug”. Richard Nixon called Trudeau ‘an asshole”. The moron remark was countered by revelations that White House staffers call Chretien ‘dino”, short for dinosaur.

What can Canada do? Normally, when the neighbours are this domineering and irritating, it is customary to think about moving house. It has crossed Canada’s mind, in a manner of speaking. As Britain headed into what was then the common market three decades ago, Trudeau tried to push Canada into a much closer relationship with Europe too.

But Europe never wanted to know. A market of 30-million people 4 800km away was unenticing. Canada was thrown back on the realities of its geography, concluded what is now an almost total free-trade arrangement with the Americans, and began to cope with the consequences.

Mostly, these are wholly benign. Canada, with its weak currency and high-quality workforce, has the world’s most mouth-watering market at its feet: more than 85% of its exports now go to the US, constituting 35% of gross domestic product. Both ways, there is more than US$1-billion worth of trade every day. Four million jobs are involved. Canada makes many of the US’s cars; it even gets to act as its body double — Toronto stood in for Chicago in the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, because prices there were so much lower. All this rakes in the money. Can such a country hate the Americans that much?

In practice, Canadians recognise the reality. For many everyday purposes, North America is one country: on the morning of September 11, the Canadian deputy commander was in charge at the joint air-defence headquarters at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. When the border was closed over the next few days and the trucks began queuing for miles, all Canadians were obliged to consider what real severance from the Americans would mean.

Thus, even though Chretien has zero chance of ever experiencing the delights of the ranch in Crawford, Texas, his government has spent much of the past year trying to make integration a greater reality. A week ago, Canadians awoke to discover that the US had effectively been given an emergency right of incursion across the border.

And so the petty indignities that have gone hand in hand with the economic blessings go on. Soon, perhaps, another ice-hockey team, representing something Canada holds even dearer than whining about the Americans, will head south to a US city where people care less but pay more. Sooner than that, in all probability, the Americans will get fed up with waiting for international opinion to catch them up, and invade Iraq without waiting for United Nations approval. What then?

‘The Canadians will say we would prefer that they go through the security council,” said the Toronto Star columnist Haroon Siddiqui. ‘There will be demonstrations, but polite ones, because this is Canada. There will be stinging editorials. Then we will fold and join them, because we have no choice. There is a right-wing cheering section allied with the US that says ra-ra-ra to everything. It’s not a majority. But the reality is we cannot have our trucks stalled at the border. They have to keep rolling.” —

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