March 27, 2003

Blame Canada

Americans are often inclined to describe the relationship of their country with Canada as "close friendship." The blunt, horrifying and awful truth - well known to basically everyone in Canada - is almost diametrically the opposite. No, Canadians are not likely to start sending suicide bombers into American buildings, but the relationship could be far more accurately described as intermittently acrimonious, like two neighbours who don't really see eye-to-eye very often, but have to live next to each other and usually try to remain civil about it.

Canada and the US are next to each other. For the most part, we both speak English and the border is fairly open. Neither side can dehumanise the other enough to make relations between the two openly hostile. However, US-Canada relations are about as bad as such circumstances allow, and they have always been that way.

Canada - in its former incarnation as the Dominion of Canada - was founded in part in response to US efforts to claim the whole territory as reparations for British support for the Confederacy in the US Civil War. By establishing Canada as a state - at least of sorts - it was able to cut off that whole line of thinking in Washington. Canada built the trans-Canada railway out of fear that if the US controlled transportation in and out of the Canadian west, they would eventually annex it. There was actually a brief shooting war in 1859 over the exact border between the US and Canada. Fortunately, the only casualty was a pig.

In the 1860's and 70's the US harboured and assisted a group of terrorists known as the Fenians, who had as their ambition the overthrow of the Canadian government. The US actively tried to gain control of western Canada in the aftermath of the Riel rebellion, and the two nations nearly came to war in disputes over Canadian inland fisheries in the 1880's. Then, at the turn of the century, the US used troops, political pressure on London and manipulative appointments to the border commission to get a new treaty over the disputed Alaskan border. This new border favoured the US beyond any reasonable interpretation of the old Russian border agreement, and enraged Canadians. It was in response to this betrayal by London that Canada finally obtained control over its own foreign policy.

It is only from about the end of WWI to the 1957 federal election that the US and Canada enjoyed anything that could be construed as good relations at all. Diefenbaker viscerally hated JFK, especially after the US started pressing Canada to join the OAS and take positions at the UN more in line with America's. There was the continuing fighting over Cuba, which did far more to damage to US-Canada relations than it actually hurt Cuba in the 60's, 70's and 80's. The US now has a law allowing it to deport Canadian businessmen visiting the US because they do business in Cuba, and although the Clinton administration kept blocking enforcement, with Bush it seems likely to become an issue again. Canada's position on the Vietnam war also earned it regular sniping from Washington, especially after '73 when the Canadian parliament passed a resolution condemning Nixon's efforts to prolong the war. If it hadn't been for Watergate, it is doubtful that Canada's oil industry nationalisation could have happened - especially in the middle of the 1973 oil embargo - without completely poisoning US-Canada relations.

It should surprise no one that Pierre Trudeau and Richard Nixon hated each other. Nixon went to far as to state that the US should start treating Canada like every other nation and do away with the special privileges created by the long common border.

It is time for us to recognize that we have very separate identities; that we have significant differences; and that nobody's interests are furthered when these realities are obscured. - Richard Nixon
Of course, this was from the man who called Pierre Trudeau an asshole, to which Trudeau replied with one of the great comebacks of all time: "I've been called worse things by better men."

So, US-Canada animosity is hardly new. Vast areas of Canadian cultural life and political policy are defined in response and often by opposition to the US. Contrast this with Australia, arguably the most pro-American of the major former British colonies. Remoteness changes the whole nature of the relationship between the two.

So why then, do Americans believe that Canada is "their friend"? This is why:

Today's Aislin - go to for his daily editorial cartoon
With the exception of the unusually perceptive Matthew Yglesias, Americans pay very little attention to Canadian affairs. People who - all of a sudden - have become experts on the history of the middle east when Bush decides to go to war with there, are unable to name two Canadian political parties. How many Americans even know that the US and Canada are engaged in a lengthy and expensive trade dispute over softwood lumber, one that had sharply lowered Canadian opinion of the US even before the Bush election? Or the running disputes - on one occaision resulting in direct action against Americans travelling through Canada - over fishing rights in the Pacific? I assure you that everyone in Canada knows about it.

How much reporting has this story had in the US? The US deported a Canadian citizen - in possession of a Canadian passport - to Syria! Canadian consular officials have been allowed only the bare minimum of access to him in Syria. Since he was born in Syria - and consequently can not forswear Syrian citizenship - Canada has no right to assist him when he is in Syria. Or this fiasco involving multiple violations of the Vienna Convention. Imagine if this had happened to an American. Bush would be bombing the country as we speak.

Quotes from members of the governing Liberal Party:

Herb Dhaliwal (Minister of Natural Resources), March 19

I think the world expects someone who is the President of a superpower to be a statesman. I think he has let, not only Americans, but the world down by not being a statesman.

Carolyn Parrish (MP), Feb. 26

Damn Americans. I hate those bastards.

Jean Chrétien (Prime Minister), Feb. 13

Great strength is not always perceived by others as benign. Not everyone around the world is prepared to take the word of the United States on faith.

Colleen Beaumier (MP), Jan. 29

This is a war against children. No matter how you slice it, there is more to this war than the Bush regime and the Saddam Hussein regime. How many children are we going to kill to replace that regime?

Benoît Serré (MP), Jan. 29

George Bush is very trigger-happy.

Françoise Ducros (PM's aide), Nov. 20, 2002

What a moron. [referring to Bush]

For Canadians, having the Bush administration send their enforcer to make veiled threats is just another sign of deep contempt from the United States government. I realise that it's more a sign of the mafia mindset of the current US president than any deep public sentiment, but for many Canadians it doesn't much matter who is in the White House. The only thing new about the Bush administration is that now they say and do these things in public.

I used to at least feel confidient that it could never get too bad between the US and Canada. For Americans to dehumanise Canadians the way Arabs have been dehumanised since Sept 11 is something I considered just about impossible. Recently, I have had to rethink that conclusion, because I would have thought it nearly as difficult to do to the French. I had long thought advocating a a belligerent position towards Canada would induce a reality check in any mentally healthy American. However, take a look at a couple of the posters here:

All you need to do to change canadian policy is create 10 hour lines at the border... and have everyone using airports go through a 30 minute interview... you could effectively close the border without any real actions... 40% of canada's gdp is based on us exports... so a little pressure goes a long way (and effect is immediate!)

    Posted by libertarian uber alles

All I can say is, it's about time. What's offensive about what he said? And what wasn't offensive about all the crap coming from Canadian officials all these months? A trade war with Canada would have next to no effect on the US. To hell with the Canadians. Let them trade with the French.

    Posted by Thomas

I know a couple of trolls aren't representative of all America, but for the last 20 years I've watched the jackasses go from victory to victory, and the new xenophobia in America scares the shit out of me. It is no longer beyond credibility that Americans could treat Canada the way Europe is getting treated now.

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Posted 2003/03/27 11:04 (Thu) | TrackBack