Canadian Moments

Canada's break with America on foreign policy isn't so novel

Canadian history—from JFK and Diefenbaker, to the last 'Trudeau Doctrine'—is littered with foreign-policy differences with the U.S.

Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau speaks outside the White House, 3/25, after concluding talks with President Nixon, right. Trudeau was the first world leader to be officially received at the White House since the new administration took office. (Bettmann/Getty)

Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau speaks outside the White House, 3/25, after concluding talks with President Nixon, right. Trudeau was the first world leader to be officially received at the White House since the new administration took office. (Bettmann/Getty)

Christine Sismondo’s Canadian Moments series looks at what history can teach us about a current moment in Canadian news, politics, or culture. Read more of her columns here.

They called it the “Trudeau Doctrine.”

“They” being the pundits, that is, not Minister Chrystia Freeland or her team, as she laid out Canada’s new direction for foreign policy in her address to the House earlier this week. One writer said that it was the first time in Canadian history that our foreign policy was “essentially opposed” to American foreign policy.

While that’s probably true on a literal level, we’ve often been farther from the United States on foreign policy over the past 50 or 60 years than we ever admitted—and farther apart than most of us tend to remember. In fact, the term “Trudeau Doctrine” recalls Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s foreign policy of the late 1960s, which formalized the distance and differences between us and America. Even that was merely a formalization and intensification of a trend that, arguably, began at least as early as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when John Diefenbaker failed to take John F. Kennedy’s claims of Soviet aggression as seriously as the Americans would have liked. Canada dragged its heels in support of the United States in its time of crisis, partly because Diefenbaker considered JFK inexperienced and temperamentally unfit for the job.

A few years later, with Lyndon B. Johnson and Lester B. Pearson at their respective helms, it looked as if U.S.-Canada relations might be ready for a reset, especially since Canada finally accepted the deployment of Bomarc missiles, fitted with nuclear weapons, as part of its NORAD commitments. The two countries had been at odds over that, since Diefenbaker’s minority Progressive Conservative government—and the Canadian people—was split over nuclear weapons on Canadian soil. That division in the ranks forced an early election—it had been less than a year since the last one—which Pearson’s Liberals won, who then formed a minority government and convinced the House that upholding our NORAD commitments was important in the context of the Cold War.

MORE: Chrystia Freeland explains the world for you

The detente didn’t last long, though. In April 1965, Pearson spoke at Temple University in Philly, where he argued that although the United States could fully count on Canada’s support, it was time for a “pause for peace”—one that would allow for the U.S. Air Force to let up on Operation Rolling Thunder and stop bombing North Vietnam. The next day at Camp David, when Pearson and LBJ were grilled by the press about Canada’s position on Vietnam, the pair downplayed the rift; Pearson emphasized the need for consensus and co-operation within the international community and the President warned the media not to blow it up to make it look dramatic. Good thing they didn’t know that LBJ had greeted the Prime Minister that day by lifting him up by the lapels and warning him not to come to his country and “piss on my rug.” (This story, incidentally, is sometimes written off as apocryphal, but it was recently confirmed to me in an interview with Pearson’s daughter-in-law, former senator Landon Pearson, who heard it directly from diplomat Charles Ritchie, who had witnessed it.)

Lester Pearson. (Winnipeg Free Press)

Lester Pearson. (Winnipeg Free Press)

Operation Rolling Thunder didn’t stop, of course, despite the fact that it was a strategic failure. Escalation only increased Canadians’ ambivalence over the Vietnam War and, as such, we maintained a fine diplomatic line of official neutrality, under-the-table support and massive profiteering. Despite the country’s queasiness over being involved with nuclear missiles—such as the controversial Bomarcs—we seem to have had no qualms over our involvement in the manufacture of other unusually cruel weapons, most notably the defoliant Agent Orange, which had been tested, along with the lesser-known Agent Purple, in New Brunswick. We also supplied our neighbours with polystyrene, used to manufacture napalm, as well as military equipment and manpower. And although Canada never sent troops, roughly 30,000 Canadians volunteered to fight with the Americans.

That number underscores the polarization Canada was experiencing over militarism and American foreign policy. On the other side was a burgeoning swell of young people coming of age and engaging in political protest and the cultural revolution. All of this dovetailed with the country’s centennial, which presented an opportunity for a reinvention of the nation—and the nationalism that goes with it. Expo ’67, an event as deeply invested in techno-optimism and modernity as anything Walt Disney ever conceived of for Tomorrowland, gave Canadians a glimpse of what they could be: modern, independent, multicultural and worldly. It was a chance to break free of past historical realities, including colonialism, separatism and economic dependence on the United States.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau had been the perfect signifier for this new ethos. He likened Canada’s geographical position to sleeping with an elephant, pointing out that it was impossible not to feel the aftershocks of every little twitch and turn throughout the night. The Trudeau Doctrine—the original one—clarified our position that, although we had to live with the elephant, our country wasn’t going to roll over and unquestioningly accept the Monroe Doctrine, which justified American intervention outside its borders in the name of security and trade. Trudeau sent the nuclear-fitted Bomarc missiles packing. In exchange, we took in draft-dodgers and evaders.

Starting in 1968, Canadian border guards stopped asking American visitors about their draft cards, a policy that Trudeau explained at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. in March of that year: “The status of being a draft-dodger doesn’t enter at all into our immigration policy,” he said. “You can have your draft card in your pocket, if you are dodging the draft, you’re not even asked about it and you are admitted at the Canadian border. It is an irrelevant question from the point of view of our policy.”

Many of the young draft-dodgers enrolled in Canadian universities, where some worried they might foment more political polarization. Trudeau brushed aside that suggestion, characterizing the newcomers as good, orderly students, motivated by reasons of conscience. That wave of refugees, numbering roughly 40,000, represented the largest influx of Americans into Canada since the United Empire Loyalists came after the American Revolution.

Those draft-dodgers also had other benefits for the country. They provided a brief correction to Canada’s “brain drain” problem; the United States’ ability to attract global talent had been America’s gain and Canada’s loss. Now that trend would be reversed for nearly a decade with Canadian universities the biggest winners, since the culture of higher education was re-invigorated by American academics who stayed in Canada, even after the war ended. Even through stagflation, energy crises and hardships of the 1970s, many of these American dissenters wound up playing a vital roles in Canadian life, like sci-fi luminary William Gibson, radio personality Andy Barrie, and acclaimed Montreal Gazette sportswriter Jack Todd—all three of whom were either deserters or evaders. All told, some estimates suggest that, compared with normal immigration patterns, roughly 100,000 more Americans moved to Canada than usual; since people proactively evaded the draft, precise numbers are hard to pin down.

The oft-repeated American threat, “I’m moving to Canada”—uttered by many liberals after Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush and again when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton—is an echo of that mass migration, even though few actually follow through. But as Justin Trudeau continues to grow into his role as a new global liberal icon, Canada will likely become a more attractive destination for dissenting Americans, especially academics, who will now be considering making a move in the face of uncertain funding in the United States. We’re casting our lot with France now, and along with Emmanuel Macron, we are ready to take on alienated American climate scientists.

It may appear like a big pivot to break with the United States. But it’s important to keep in mind that it was the elephant who flipped the mattress first, and that Canada is largely maintaining its commitment to global co-operation, trade and liberal alliances. Furthermore, our foreign policy differences with the United States have actually been a source of tension for decades. And making those differences formal and official had been an important part of Canada’s reinvention project nearly 50 years ago, back when we had just turned a fresh-faced 100.

It looks as if it will be again. This time around, instead of naïvely driving past our historical realities, though, it’d be better to be more mindful of our legacy of colonization and conquest—scars and all—as we forge our future identity. We should keep in mind that, as the elephant tosses and turns, we’re going to feel some aftershocks. But we should also remember that we lived through those once before, and have come out all the better for it.

Correction: A previous version of this post said that the story about Johnson grabbing Pearson by the lapels was confirmed by Pearson’s daughter, Patricia, not his daughter-in-law, Landon. Maclean’s regrets the error.

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