Americans take Canada for granted.
At least, that's how the Canadians feel. Although Canada is by far the United States' biggest trading partner and shares a border across the whole North American continent, the United States -- including the media -- pays minimal attention to what goes on up here. The result is a classic love-hate relationship.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau has said that living in such close contact with a nation whose economy is like being in bed with an elephant: no matter how friendly the beast, every single move it makes is disturbing.
Much to the distress of those who strive to preserve a sense of national pride and unity, Canadians buy American products, follow American life styles, read American books and watch American movies and television.
Cycles of inflation and interest rates tend to follow what happens south of the border. While waiting in line to board a plane for a flight to Montreal, I over-heard a businessman confide to a colleague: "I think once the election is over, interest rates will jump to 16 to 18 percent." Of course, the election he was talking about is the one that will take place in the United States on Nov. 4.
With good reason, Canadians are forced to look as much to Washington as Ottawa for clues to their economic future. Thus, it's not surprising that there's a growing drift in Canada to economic future. Thus, it's not surprising that there's growing drift in Canada to economic nationalism. It takes root easily in times of economic stress. Europe and the United States have their own versions with protectionist tendenices in steel, autos and other industries.
Here, the major symbol of nationalism at the moment is the decision of the Trudeau government to proceed with the "Canadianization" to the oil and gas industry, which is dominated by American multinational companies.
Some of the foreign oil companies display an unbelievable insensitivity to the Canadian spirit. For example, in the midst of recent public debate on this issue, Texaco Canada -- the second-biggest company in the nation -- blandly appointed a new president, an American with a Texas drawl.
"I don't mind the drawl," said a Canadian government official. "But damn it, my gut instinct tells me he'll only be around for two years, and while he's here he won't be fighting for Canada."
Although I was assured in conversations with government officials that oil and gas is a special case and that there is no general hostility toward foreign investment, other knowledgeable sources think that the pro-Canada stance in oil and gas is a foretaste of what is to come in industry generally.
Like the United States, Canada is shaping up a national industrial policy to help its companies become and stay competitive. In a little-publicized speech just two weeks ago, Herb Gray, minister of trade, industry and commerce, said plain ly that one tenet of the policy is "encouraging Canadian ownership and control of this country's productive assets."
In Montreal, a perceptive young economist summed it up for me this way: "Canada exists by virtue of not wanting to be a part of the United States. That's very much a part of our national character and part of our evolution. The situation ebbs and flows. But we Canadians are especially emotional when it comes to natural resources."
Trudeau, meanwhile, is pursuing what long has been a driving ambition -- constitutional reform including a Bill of Rights that would ensure the equal treatment of the Francophone (French-speaking) population throughout Canada. Oil-rich Alberta, which as been cohabiting very comfortably with the American multinational oil companies, is fighting Trudeau's version of constitutional reform as bitterly as it contests his demand for a bigger share of oil revenues.
"The links are really much more North-South than East-West," said one observer. "Canada is an anachronism in a geographical sense. British Columbia is much more like California than Quebec, and Quebec has stronger ties, through its sales of hydroelectric power, to the northeast United States than to our own Western provinces." Can such a country survive?
In the traditional "speech from the throne" last April 14, Trudeau grimly acknowledged the "forces that are driving us apart." He frankly raised the question whether Canada will "still exist as a country at the end of this decade." Trudeau's response is positive. He pledges a fight for Canadian unity and a stronger economy freed of dominance by the United States or any other foreign power. Only time will tell whether he can overcome the powerful opposing forces inside and out.