Lawrence Martin is the Washington columnist for the Globe and Mail, and author of “The Presidents and the Prime Ministers.”
Early in the last century, the expansively minded Teddy Roosevelt thought it a shame that Canada didn’t join the American union. As Americans, he wrote, Canadians “would hold positions incomparably more important, grander and more dignified than they can ever hope to reach.”
From the perspective of power, the 26th president was on the mark. As it celebrates its 150th birthday this week, Canada is still modest in stature, certainly by comparison with the United States. Had we followed Roosevelt’s advice, we would have been a major component, a liberal one, of an America which would have taken on mammoth geographical proportions.
But we passed up on the big time and have no regrets. Life in the slower lane has been fine enough. With the big guy next door doing the heavy lifting, more peace, less stress.
The big guy wasn’t always pleased. Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary, once opened a security briefing, saying, “Mr. President, the good news is that Canada has now surged ahead of Luxembourg in defense spending.”
Most often Washington didn’t pay much heed. Canada was an afterthought. Our external affairs minister Lester Pearson visited President Dwight Eisenhower once to discuss what he considered a pressing bilateral issue. He emerged shaking his head that the golfing president had never heard of the matter. “You’d think,” Pearson muttered to an aide, “his caddie would have mentioned it to him.”
But while being viewed as little more than a “hunk of geography,” as a leader of our New Democratic Party once put it, has brought on many frustrations, the benefits have more than compensated. We haven’t had to spend a large portion of our GDP on the military, not with Goliath next door providing a security umbrella. We’ve never had to worry about having a market for our goods, not with the world’s biggest trade market across the border.
Canadians have come to have a reputation for modesty and moderation. For that, the United States can take some credit as well. Living in the shadow of Uncle Sam’s arrogance and the rocket’s red glare, those qualities naturally accrued.
As we hit 150, Americans deserve our thanks. They not only provided protective might and economic dynamism but also gave us a display of excesses to be avoided. We’ve been adept at partaking of the good, leaving behind the bad.
To military cooperation we’ve said yes sometimes. But on Vietnam, it was “no, thank you” and on the Iraq War, the same. Good calls. On commerce, the example of America’s more embedded free-market philosophy helped yank us away from our protectionist and big tax mind-sets. But we kept our tax base high enough to ensure a bigger social safety net and we didn’t fall for other Washington follies such as too much deregulation, too little health care.
Politically, we’ve stayed in the more sane and sober middle. We’ve had our populist lurches, the baseness of late Toronto mayor Rob Ford being a prime example. But most often our Cro-Magnon conservatives have been kept at bay. No nativism of a tea party type, no jingoist leader who owns more mirrors than books.
Canada at 150th shouldn’t forget that Americans were a prime reason for our birth in the first place. The British North American colonies united in 1867 in part over fears of American annexation.
While we’ve chafed at being overlooked by the White House, it often wasn’t the case. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an abiding friend, forging defense and economic pacts that greatly enhanced our security. In the Ford administration, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was the trigger to Canada gaining membership in the Group of 7, which has provided stature for Canada ever since that time. Ronald Reagan’s vision of a “North American accord” put forward in his 1980 election was a forerunner of the North American Free Trade Agreement now under challenge by the Trump administration. Bill Clinton helped the cause of Canadian unity with his warning to Quebec separatists that Washington would not view the breakup of Canada with equanimity.
At other times, such as now, the relationship has been more rocky. A poll released this week shows that for the first time in several decades, a majority of Canadians dislike the United States. Trump’s America First proclivities have stirred fears of destabilizing a stable relationship. His excesses remind Canadians of their wisdom in keeping some distance from the American way.
The rule of thumb for Canadian policymakers in dealing with the United States has been not to get too close nor too far; a middle power seeking middle ground. It has worked. One hundred and fifty years on, Canada looks and learns, America being a great model for what’s right and what isn’t.