U.S.-Canada relations: With humour and patience, we can remain friends

David Kilgour
David vs. David
With the right attitude, those little problems between Canada and the U.S. don't seem so bad. (Reuters)

From a Canadian perspective, Canada-U.S. relations have advanced to a point where they are capable of transcending a very unpopular president such as George W. Bush. While Barack Obama was welcomed into office overwhelmingly by Canadians, his misinformation to justify a presidential veto of legislation key tothe Canadian Keystone XL pipeline was a serious blow to good bilateral relations.

The relationship overall is probably no better or worse than it has been for many years, largely because our two countries are now seen on both sides of the border as alternative civilizations and thus increasingly unlikely to diverge or converge on a range of public issues. Our expectations of each other are perhaps becoming more realistic.

David Jones and I wrote Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs about the two nations in 2007. Some features of the relationship continue to apply, including the approximately ten-to-one disparity in population and GDP. Canadian differences with our neighbour today are still often referred to with attempted humour or wit. Two examples:

  • Borrowing the famous quip of Mexican President Porfirio Diaz, “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States”, and misapplying it to Canada,
  • At creation, Canada was given tall mountains, rich soil, many lakes and a hard-working and resourceful population. Someone asked of God why the country was so favoured. He replied, “Wait until you see the neighbours I gave them.”

One of the main conclusions of the book was that over many decades there have been continuous ups and downs in how the two peoples relate. When we wrote in 2007, things could hardly have been worse, with the Bush administration still in office. This was exacerbated by some lingering Canadian smugness about perceived American failings, including indifference towards most things Canadian. 

Secondly, with the differing concepts of nationhood, both populations still need to learn more about the neighbour beyond the undefended border, which both separates and links us in a unique relationship. Since the War of 1812, the rising and ebbing reservoirs of goodwill for each other have eased the peaceful settlement of a host of major disputes, irritations, and much in-between.

Opposing view: Keystone has cooled an already frosty relationship

For reasons of politeness, Canadians still tend to avoid discussions with Americans on issues on which our differences are deep, such as governance (and election spending limits), resource management, health care, education, culture, gun laws, capital punishment, and international relations.

Canadians are often perplexed when they meet Americans, who say as a sincere compliment, “You are just like us!” We are torn over whether to say out loud, “Sorry, but we’re not.” We are both democrats and believe in the rule of law, but the common list thereafter seems not so long as it once did.

U.S. President Ronald Regan poses with Ambassador Allan Gotlieb Dec. 8, 1981. (CP)

Recent media comments by Allan Gotlieb, the longest surviving Canadian ambassador to the U.S., are thus of special interest. His tenure in Washington included the glacial Trudeau-Reagan relationship and the Mulroney-Reagan/Bush camaraderie that culminated in a free-trade agreement and acid rain treaty.

Speaking after Obama vetoed the pipeline, Gotlieb reflected, "The Keystone project has been handled with considerable insensitivity. Our history has been characterized by ... a sensitivity to each other's interests... I think some of that is intrinsic in the style of Obama. He sees his legacy, maybe, as standing up to big oil and Canada's interests are secondary to the much bigger primary interest of Obama to go down in history as the man that stopped carbon from heating up our planet."

The veteran diplomat gives Stephen Harper credit for keeping cool throughout the Keystone affair: "The relationship I'd say is correct...In a context where strong language could well have been used, in Canada, because of White House insensitivity to our relationship and our joint interests, I think Harper has been restrained. I don't think there's anything he could have done differently."

The continental sky is not falling. We are still each other's best trading partner, with $2 billion in services and goods crossing the border each day. Militarily, we are co-operating against ISIS in the Middle East. Ottawa and Washington are slowly harmonizing industrial regulations in a range of sectors and new border easing was announced last week. We were the host to negotiations, which led to the normalizing of U.S.–Cuba relations after half a century.

Productive relations between our two countries will thus continue, but we can expect occasional bumps.

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.