Hey, are we still friends?

Our expert panel debates whether Canada and the United States are closer than ever—or drifting further apart

Hey, are we still friends?

Ivanoh Demers/LA Presse/CP

Last week, the Newseum in Washington played host to “Canada-U.S.: Best Friends or Perfect Strangers?”—a debate, brought to you by Maclean’s, covering everything from border security to the war in Afghanistan, and climate change to the oil sands. The panel included Gary Doer, Canada’s ambassador to the United States, Sen. Pamela Wallin, David Frum, a former speech writer for George W. Bush, Maryscott Greenwood, senior managing director at McKenna, Long & Aldridge, and Christopher Sands, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. The discussion was hosted by CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen and included Maclean’s Paul Wells, Andrew Coyne and Luiza Ch. Savage. The following is an edited excerpt:

Peter Van Dusen: Where is Canada on the Washington radar these days?

Luiza Ch. Savage: It’s a very small blip, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. China, North Korea, Iraq, Iran are the countries that worry policy-makers, that worry the White House. Canada has this $600-billion trade relationship with the U.S. and it’s generally assumed everything’s fine, we get along fine, nothing to worry about here.

Van Dusen: So much is always made of the personal relationship between a prime minister and a president: if they’re getting along well, chances are the state of relations is pretty good; when they don’t get along well it can be a bit of a rocky road. But do we make too much of that personal relationship?

Savage: Sometimes in the media we tend to fetishize this: are they too close? Are they close enough? Are they happy today? Are they upset? How many times did they pass each other in the hallway at the G20 meeting? But really, in Washington, power is so divided, and the Congress is incredibly important, not just to passing legislation that affects Americans, but also that affects Canadians. And a lot of the issues that Canada has been dealing with in recent years—the imposition of a passport requirement at the border, or the “Buy American” legislation—came out of Congress, and that’s a big part of what Canada has to deal with, not just whether Stephen Harper and Barack Obama are getting along today or not.

Van Dusen: So Paul, Canada-U.S., best friends or perfect strangers?

Paul Wells: More and more strangers. You know, Andrew, listening to Luiza and Peter chat, I felt nostalgic for the good old days when at least on our side of the border, Canada’s relationship with the United States left the entire country racked with self-doubt and controversy.

Andrew Coyne: Good times.

Wells: God, that was great. I remember a week after the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon when president Bush addressed Congress with Tony Blair sitting next to Mrs. Bush, and he mentioned all the friends that have been such great allies of the United States through this crisis, and he didn’t mention Canada. We hear from one of his speech writers that it got edited out of an earlier draft, but our American friends would not believe the extent to which this caused introspection and panic on the Canadian side. And a decade before that we fought an entire national election on whether to have free trade with the U.S. It was one of the nastiest election campaigns we’ve ever had. There were TV commercials arguing that if we took this step of a free trade agreement, the border between the two countries would be erased.

I ran into a former U.S. ambassador on the way down here and I said we’re going to Washington to talk about Canada-U.S. relations, and he said, “No one talks about that anymore,” and yet we have the world’s most active commercial trading relationship, we have what used to be the world’s longest undefended border—it’s now the world’s longest thinly defended border—and yet Canadian trade with non-U.S. partners has grown faster than Canada’s trade with the U.S. in every year since 2000. I can’t name a large project that the two countries are undertaking together in the world, except for the Afghanistan war, in which at least the Canadian involvement is winding down.

Coyne: Paul, this is the difference between you and me. Where you see darkness, I see light. Where you see discord, I see harmony. Where you see drift, I see peace. On the issue of the military, for example, think of the discord between Diefenbaker and Kennedy, between Pearson and Johnson, the kinds of arguments that took place over the Vietnam War. Now we’ve got, as you mentioned, troops side by side in the largest joint military operation involving our two countries since Korea. On the trade front, in the ’80s and the ’90s we were constantly talking about trade spats, trade disputes, trade conflicts—now it’s trickled down to a couple of minor things. When Obama came in, we were all very excited because he was going to renegotiate NAFTA and the relationship was in jeopardy. That didn’t prove to be the case. I think what you have is a relationship that’s working well. Canadians are not as defensive relative to Americans as we used to be. That’s a good thing, that’s contributing to the potential for further progress.

Gary Doer: I do agree that the relationship is very, very strong between Canada and the United States. I do believe, over the last number of years before I was ambassador and while I was a premier, and now during the time I’ve been in Washington and around the United States, there’s a lot of confidence in Canada. I also think we’re dealing with an extraordinary time in the United States. If you go back to the ’80s and some of the trade disputes, Canada’s unemployment rate was 11 per cent and the unemployment rate in the U.S. was 7½ per cent. We had protectionist act after protectionist act after protectionist act.

I would say that we’ve got lots of issues that pop up, but they’re very manageable, and we have a very constructive, positive working relationship with the United States. That doesn’t mean to say it’s perfect, but we buy more goods from the United States than any other country including the total European Union; we sell more energy, including clean energy from hydro and traditional fossil fuels from other places in Canada; we have more people visiting—I think it’s 25 million visits a year—the United States from Canada, and for a country of 35 million people that’s a lot. On the whole it’s a very constructive, mature relationship. We don’t have our hand on the horn every hour with each other—we try to roll up our sleeves and get things done.

Maryscott Greenwood: Some people say that a Canadian is really just an unarmed American with health care. I’m not sure about that, but I do think that there are lots of differences that you don’t realize at first: it’s sort of like carbon monoxide—you can’t see it, you can’t smell it, but if you don’t detect it it’s deadly. The sensibilities are really different. In Canada, the question about public policy is, what has the government done for us; in the United States, the question about public policy is, what has the government done to us, and there’s a real distrust and a difference in the way people view policy. So, for example, Americans might be surprised to learn that in Canada one of the big debates of the last year had to do with when the federal government decided it wanted to take away the long-form census. To me, as an American, I thought, “Kind of makes sense. They probably don’t need all that information,” and the reaction was really striking, it was a big controversial issue in Canada, and it was like, “Well, we need all this information because we have all these people we have to help,” and whatever, and that was surprising. Canadians might be surprised to know that when the United States finally got along to getting health care for most of our people covered, the first thing the new Congress does is vote to repeal it, in a symbolic vote. So there’s a distrust of government here, and it just illustrates to me a real difference.

The other thing I would say is, we speak the same language but we often don’t understand each other, and I think we need a new vocabulary. The example here is sometimes the ministers come to town—no offence to the ministers in the audience—and they complain about what they call border thickening. To a Canadian, a thicker border is a bad thing because of the commerce and the relationship. But to American ears—Secretary [of Homeland Security] Janet Napolitano said to me, “They say thickening like it’s a bad thing. Our border is our last line of defence.” So we mean the same thing, we want a smart, workable border, but it needs to be secure, and so we miss each other sometimes.

Pamela Wallin: I will start with the old adage that Canada is America’s best friend whether they know it or not, and we’re their best friend whether we like it or not. And it’s really still a little true, although I agree with Andrew that the chip is lifting slowly but surely off our shoulder. Even in the last few years of George [W.] Bush and the first few years of Barack Obama, we are getting to the point, I think, where that relationship is maturing—we can disagree but we can have a grown-up conversation. That said, we can’t lose sight of the importance of this trade relationship. It’s huge. We care passionately about what goes on here, and a bad day for America is a bad day for Canada, so we need to be concerned about that. Now I think we’re grown up enough to say, “Let’s put that border around our country and try to de-thicken,” because we do see it as an issue, because of the trade and because of the people and because of the security issues.

Christopher Sands: One of the things that is underlying a lot of these comments is that in a lot of ways Washington is the same old story, but Canada’s changed. Canadian self-confidence—where they fit in the world—is much stronger than it was. There’s a better sense of who Canadians are. It’s not the little brother syndrome all the time, worrying about the shadow we cast. Canada on the world stage, or in the Canada-U.S. relationship, stands up for itself. I think we’re starting to have these conversations as equals at the diplomatic level, and that more than anything else is changing the way we solve problems, the way we handle issues, and I think it’s bringing us a little bit closer. The other thing, in a weird way, that I think has been very beneficial for us in recent years is the transition to the Obama administration. Many of the things that came after 9/11 were shocking to Canadians because it was such a change. We’ve always been a more security-minded people than Canadians. I think it was a little disturbing for Canadians to see this side of us so upfront and so direct. What’s happened with the Obama transition is I think Canadians have had a chance to see not the change but the continuity, whether it’s on homeland security, the war in Afghanistan, a number of the free trade policies that have stayed, the Obama administration’s followed some of the same lines, and I think that reflects a very American desire for how the relationship is managed. As Canadians started to see that as normal, they’ve been able to adjust policies, and there’s less friction as well.

David Frum: When Barack Obama was elected I was worried about a series of very specific challenges to the Canadian relationship that he arrived either committed to or with people in the circle committed to. He had campaigned against NAFTA and for reopening it, so that was worrying. He had endorsed an idea that had been floated by John Kerry in 2004 of rewriting the corporate tax system of the United States in a way that would be very discouraging to investment in other countries. And there was the huge question about the future of the oil sands and what attitude he would take. The good news, from a Canadian point of view—the bad news from a Democratic point of view—is that Barack Obama has jettisoned almost all of those early campaign commitments and has brought Clinton administration 3.0. It really has been amazing to me that there has been so little protectionist reaction to this extremely severe U.S. employment crisis. I wonder if that will continue if unemployment remains at very high levels. I think there’s a second-order problem, which is, as the U.S.-China relationship becomes more tense—and it is bound to become more tense because of trade, the manipulations of the currency, energy clashes—Canada has a strong interest in a very stable and commercially oriented U.S.-China relationship. I don’t think that kind of relationship is in the cards for the future, and one of the areas that may be an area of friction that is quite new is disagreements between the two countries over how to manage China.

To watch the entire round-table discussion, visit

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.