As the Canadian election campaign drags its predictable bones through one of the colder Decembers in recent memory, something finally has happened to spice up the proceedings a little bit. Not surprisingly, it was nothing that any of our own political leaders have said or done that’s been too much out of the ordinary. It’s taken the hamfisted interference of the Bush Administration in the campaign to wake Canadians from their midwinter hibernation and stir themselves to active interest in the proceedings.
The Canadian and US governments have been at loggerheads the past couple of years over the softwood-lumber tariff issue. Coupled with the mad-cow scare, our unwillingness to join the coalition of America- led troops invading Iraq, and our refusal to sign onto a joint missile-defense program, this had led to a period of cool relations between the two countries.
Then last week, at a climate-change summit in Montreal, Prime Minister Paul Martin said that the American government didn’t care about global warming. Considering George Bush and Co.’s steadfast refusal to sign onto the Kyoto Accord, which requires little real commitment to change, this isn’t saying anything which isn’t pretty much already public knowledge.
Paul Martin had been scheduled to speak at this summit long before a Canadian election was called, so the timing of the event was pure coincidence. That being said, Mr. Martin’s comments probably were influenced by the fact that he is in the middle of an election campaign and that Canadians have shown they are not very happy with the current American administration.
But instead of just letting it slide for what it is, election rhetoric, the Bush administration has chosen to stick its nose into Canada’s campaign. In the last week or so, US leaders have taken actions that show implied support for a Canadian regime change.
The first step was last week’s public chastisement of Canada’s ambassador to the United States over Martin’s statement about the Kyoto accord. According to comments made by political-science professor Stephen Clarkson in the “Globe and Mail” that, short of expulsion, there is no ambassadorial punishment more serious than this type of rebuke.
The censure was followed by a speech by the US ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins, who warned Canadians that they risked long-term harm to American-Canadian friendship by going for short-term political gains through criticizing US policy. Since having the ambassador threaten the sanctity of our relationship seems to be the standard American practice, one might wonder how this incident can be construed as being American interference in the election.
Professor Clarkson argues that the timing of these two incidents coupled with the recent public stances taken by supporters of groups like the National Rifle Association and Friends of the Family show that the current administration has set its sights on a new, right-wing Canadian government.
There’s a slight problem for them, however. Given the current antipathy most Canadians have for the American government and its policies, attempts to influence the voters by criticizing Canada will backfire. The US will make Martin look like he’s the the great Canadian defender standing up to those bullying American neighbors.
Bush’s Canadian approval rating is so low that Conservative Party leader Steven Harper is taking great pains to distance himself from any sign of US endorsement. He’s gone from being one of the biggest proponents of joining the coalition in Iraq to saying now that he wouldn’t send Canadian troops there. When the Washington Times wrote an article saying how Harper’s election would please Bush, the Tory leader wrote the Times a letter denying most of the points made in its commentary.
If you’re talking about political expediency, the finger shouldn’t be pointed only at Paul Martin. Just over a year ago Harper was invited to a personal meeting with Bush at the White House, a very rare occurrence for the leader of the opposition in a foreign government. While Martin and the Liberal Party have taken to wrapping themselves in the Canadian flag over the past couple of years, Harper until very recently has been spouting rhetoric similar to that of Ambassador Wilkins.
The Bush Administration has a 70 percent disapproval ratting among Canadians. While that means squat in terms of how it affects him in the US, in terms of Canadian politics, it’s a big deal. Any American denunciation of a Canadian politician is going to register as a ringing endorsement in the ears of the public up here.
Canadians, unlike their neighbors to the south, do not tend to be overt in their pride of country. With the exception of international hockey matches, we hardly ever put on emotional displays of patriotism. However, that does not mean we take our independence or our sovereignty for granted.
As people living in a small nation adjacent to a massive world power, we are very sensitive to actions that give even the appearance of attempting to interfere with outr internal decisionmaking process. The actions of the Bush Administration over the last couple of weeks, while maybe not deliberate attempts at influence, are sure being construed as such by many Canadians.
If the American government were serious about wanting to see a change in regime in Canada, it would be better off doing either absolutely nothing beyond hoping that Paul Martin’s popularity continues to erode, or resorting to reverse psychology and endorsing the party it doesn’t support while criticizing the one it does. Its reputation is so tarnished here that any party it supports will become immediately suspect. And anybody they criticize… well, you get the picture.
If the Bush Administration was sincere in its desire for improved Canadian-American relations, it sure has a funny way of showing it. Uttering veiled threats in an attempt to influence a sovereign nation’s voters is not the action of a friendly neighbor. One has to wonder about the level of Bush and Co.’s maturity if US leadership can’t accept criticism of its policies from an ally without lashing out.
Canada and other countries have come to mistrust the current White House more than any American administration since Richard Nixon’s heyday. While most Canadians have nothing but genuine affection for our southern neighbors, their leaders are straining relations so badly that it will take a serious effort on the part of future leaders to restore it.
One can hope only that Canadian leaders show a little more maturity than their south-o-the-border counterparts – that they can ignore the recent rhetoric and refrain from responding in kind. Doing otherwise could lead to a cooling of relations that citizens of neither country want. The 49th parallel has long been a symbol of how two sovereign nations of differing philosophies can coexist harmoniously and cooperatively. It would be a shame to see that end.