J.J. McCullough, a political commentator and cartoonist from Vancouver, is a columnist at Loonie Politics.
Back in high school, when I was just starting to get interested in Canadian politics and history, I would sometimes browse the library microfiche to see how the big American newspapers reported on major Canadian events. My findings were endlessly underwhelming. Stories of enormous consequence to Canada were relegated to skinny “global update” sidebars, if that.
In fairness, this was often as much a product of unfortunate timing as anything else. Quebec’s 1995 secession campaign occurred at the height of the O.J. Simpson trial, for instance.
And now, the first-ever meeting between Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Trump, one of the year’s marquee events in the eyes of the Canadian press, has become but the latest Canadian footnote to a vastly more interesting American story — the resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Monday’s joint Trump-Trudeau news conference proved a particularly revealing study of how differing priorities can cause two countries to view the same event in starkly different ways. The fact that the news conference was so painfully dull, with the two leaders exchanging uncontroversial niceties about the importance of strengthening cross-border relations while avoiding squabbles over disagreements on Syrian refugees and the Islamic State, was seen as a soaring triumph by the Canadians, who feared an off-topic, off-the-rails disaster.
The Americans, meanwhile, viewed it as exactly such a disaster precisely because it was so calm and on-topic. Big-shot Washington journalists wanted to get their president to talk about Flynn, whose career was obviously hanging by a thread. Instead, a couple of carefully curated reporters from smaller publications asked about Canada and were condemned for wasting everyone’s time.
But if America’s press pool was overly dour for parochial reasons, Canada’s journalists were excessively giddy for their own, having previously worried themselves into an unnecessary lather with a barrage of low-expectation think pieces about the inevitable clash between these “vastly different” men. Yet the fact they proved cordial — even chummy — was hardly unforeseeable.
Like Trump, Canada’s leader is a man from a background bathed in privilege and luxury. Before Trudeau gave the president a framed photograph commemorating the occasion, few Canadians were probably aware that former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Justin Trudeau’s father, once attended a banquet with Trump at the Waldorf Astoria, but it could not have surprised them. The old man Trudeau, who once dated Barbra Streisand and staged photo ops with John Lennon, was no stranger to the world of celebrity glamour. He was the sort of flamboyant world leader someone like Trump would have been pleased to have known and “respected greatly.” That the great man’s handsome son is now in charge probably tickles the president in a similar way, given his supposed predilection for people who seem straight out of central casting.
A less excusable source of Canadian nervousness stemmed from a gross underestimation of the president’s ability to perceive the world in shades of gray. Trump’s “America First” inaugural address was taken excessively literally by a number of Canadian pundits, who filled the airwaves for weeks with dark premonitions about tariffs and a “thickening” border — comments that exposed a great deal of naivete about just how “foreign” their country is perceived by the nation below.
The United States and Canada are perhaps the two most economically integrated countries on Earth, with more than $2 billion of activity crossing the border each day, including thousands of Canadians who commute over it. Canadians have an insatiable appetite for U.S. products — Canada is the single largest destination for U.S. exports — and a shared continent, history and language have made the two peoples culturally indistinguishable (“you can only tell them apart by pointing this out,” the old joke goes). Hundreds of thousands of Canadian expats live and work permanently in the United States, including a vast array of celebrities, business leaders, academics and journalists — to say nothing of the astonishing 350,000-plus who labor in Silicon Valley alone.
Whatever xenophobic instincts it may possess, the Trump administration is clearly capable of grasping the benefits of these realities. Even the most raging American chauvinist understands why a migrant from Calgary is less troubling than one from Yemen, or why a Ford plant in Ontario that ships half-finished cars to Detroit isn’t the same as one that relocates to Juárez to dodge union wages. Asked about the Canadian border, Trump blared common sense: “It’s a much less severe situation than what’s taken place on the southern border.” His government, in short, has bigger fish to fry.
A happily anticlimactic — if not instantly forgotten — summit reminded once more that Canada does not loom quite as large in the American attention span as Canadians have a tendency to expect. While that might occasionally wound our ego, it remains an asset to our interests.