Canada’s best Presidents

Relations with the U.S. still depend on how our leaders get along

Canada’s best Presidents

In August 1943, two years before the end of the Second World War, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood at the base of Ottawa’s Peace Tower and addressed his “good friends and neighbours of the Dominion.” The crowd, reportedly numbering 27,000, covered even the rooftops of the capital.

Roosevelt, who had summered as a boy and, later, as president at Campobello Island, New Brunswick, spoke stridently of the Nazi menace in Europe and confidently of what would come from the meetings in Quebec City between himself, prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and British prime minister Winston Churchill. “Mr. King, my old friend,” Roosevelt said, “may I, through you, thank the people of Canada for their hospitality to all of us. Your course and mine have run so closely and affectionately during these many long years that this meeting adds another link to that chain. I have always felt at home in Canada, and you, I think, have always felt at home in the United States.”

Parliament Hill was said to be “alive that day with a great good will.” When Roosevelt concluded his remarks, Ottawa’s mayor offered what would now be considered a wildly irresponsible salutation. “I hope that I will not be misunderstood,” Stanley Lewis said, “when I say that many Canadians affectionately call you ‘our president.’ ”

President Barack Obama’s visit to Ottawa next week will lack such pageantry. Crowds may gather on Parliament Hill, but they will be lucky to catch even a glimpse of the man himself. The only public event of the brief, working visit will be a joint press conference with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Still, if the new President seeks a model for his administration’s relationship with Canada, there may be few better precedents than Roosevelt—a giant of American history to whom Obama has already been compared in both circumstance and potential. Though the bond between the two countries now, arguably, supersedes the influence of any individual president or prime minister, the relationship still peaks and falls on the political and personal interests of two men.

In Roosevelt’s case, says University of Waterloo historian and former Liberal MP John English, “his commitment to the defence of Canada in the later’30s was the most important thing. His willingness to try to find every way possible to help out Canada in the war was the greatest of all deeds of any American president. I think psychologically he gave the continent such a lift. We were the most affected place in the world, Canada and the United States, by the Great Depression. And American policies really hurt us a lot after the Depression began, but Roosevelt started to undo it and his first attempts at trade pacts in 1935 were very important.”

His New Deal may have seen the continent through the Depression and his signing, with King, of the Ogdensburg Agreement in 1940 may have led to the modern concept of North American defence, but Roosevelt might also be credited with the even more complicated achievement of making it acceptable for Canadians to admire America. “At the end of the war, Mackenzie King was so upset that in Niagara Falls they were putting up a tribute to ‘our nations’ leaders’ Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but I have no doubt that if polls were taken, Roosevelt would have been much more popular than Mackenzie King,” English says. “By the 1940s, a lot of Canadians were wanting to join the United States. The old Canadian anti-Americanism that was so strong in 1911, when William Howard Taft was president, had disappeared.”

What peaked with Roosevelt, and may yet again with Obama, may in fact owe much to Taft. Indeed, though his presidency may have included one of the low points in Canada-U.S. relations, he might also claim to be the genesis of everything, good or ill, that’s followed.

Reputed to be the heaviest president in U.S. history, Taft served just one term in the White House. In the Canadian context, he is most famous for his ill-fated attempt to broker reciprocity—what would later be known as free trade—between the two countries. Opposition to an agreement in Canada led to the defeat of Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal government and not until 1988, with Conservatives by then supporting free trade against Liberal criticism, would Canada and the United States complete a deal.

In that way, though, Taft fans can claim him as something of a pioneer—reaching for a new understanding of North American relations. University of Toronto historian Robert Bothwell calls Taft “imaginative and accommodating” toward Canada. And though his original motivations were not entirely neighbourly, his essential understanding of the Canada-U.S. dynamic is now one taken for granted as natural and obvious.

“He saw Canada as the linchpin of the British empire system of moving goods. And that if you could bring Canada into a sort of American orbit, commerce could still flow but there’d be a big separation between the Pacific and Indian Ocean parts of the British Empire and the Atlantic. This would dramatically reduce British influence in the western hemisphere, it would weaken Britain overall and it would give us access to wonderful resources, terrific people, et cetera,” says Christopher Sands, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. “So he had this vision. We would be friends, but we would be friends based on commerce, not conquest. From Taft on, there’s no question of invasion. The view is: we just need to strengthen economic ties. And if you look subsequent to Taft, even though other presidents come in and have different views, that view never changes. It becomes our basic goal.”

If the basic goal, for both sides, has remained unchanged, the subsequent century of alternatively warm, testy and self-conscious relations has depended much on the particular personalities and political pursuits of the individual presidents and prime ministers. Indeed, as deep as the integration is now and as common as the interests may become, much in the two countries’ relationships depends simply on how well the two leaders get along. “I think it matters a lot,” English says. “If you read the memoirs of the presidents and the prime ministers, they tend to think it matters a terrific amount.”

The interaction between Pierre Trudeau and Ronald Reagan makes an intriguing case study. At first glance, they seemed bound to clash. “There’s a great picture,” says Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University and author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, “of Trudeau in an ascot, looking very European, and Reagan in a brown suit, looking sort of midwestern.” Yet he points out that Reagan writes favourably in his memoirs about his first meeting with Trudeau, recalling how they agreed on the need for a closer North American alliance, planting the seeds of the free trade deal Reagan eventually signed with Brian Mulroney.

And if Reagan and Mulroney cultivated a far warmer rapport, Reagan seems to have been more intrigued than annoyed by Trudeau. At the 1984 Group of Seven summit in London, Trudeau coaxed Reagan into reciting Robert Service’s “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” during dinner at Buckingham Palace. Reagan wrote that he realized Trudeau was putting him on the spot. Rather than resenting it, though, Reagan seems to have relished rising to the challenge. He wrote about it in detail and without rancour. His more famous moment with Mulroney, singing When Irish Eyes are Smiling at the so-called Shamrock Summit of 1985, doesn’t rate a mention in his autobiography.

Even Trudeau’s famously tense relationship with Richard Nixon might not have been as dysfunctional as it is often made out to be. It’s widely assumed the two men disliked each other, largely because Nixon was caught on one of his infamous White House tapes calling Trudeau an “asshole.” But the president also employed profanity to be complimentary. In another tape, he’s heard remarking, “That Trudeau, he’s a clever son of a bitch.”

It was Nixon’s vice-president and successor who made perhaps the most concrete positive move for Canada’s international stature. In 1976, Gerald Ford insisted on including Canada in the annual gatherings of the most powerful developed economies, the summits that would become the G7. Ford was from Michigan, and often visited Canada, which seemed to influence his tendency to view Canada favourably. The fact that he was a Republican and Trudeau a Liberal didn’t seem to enter into the matter.

Beyond imploring presidents to do the right thing on the inevitable trade issues, prime ministers have occasionally looked to the White House to send pro-Canadian-unity signals. Bothwell says both Carter and Clinton were helpful in stressing the value of Canada at “fever points of Quebec separatism.” Doing so doesn’t cost a president anything in U.S. domestic politics.

When there’s a clash between American and international interests, or course, presidents tend, like politicians everywhere, to play to the home crowd. In Obama’s case, that might eventually spell disappointment for his legions of admirers abroad, including Canadians. “At a certain point it is more important for him to be popular in Peoria than in Ottawa, let alone than in Europe,” says Troy.

Still, if he should come to be feted on Parliament Hill and hailed as “our president” as well, so be it.

With John Geddes

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