fences and neighbours

One thing that hampers many discussions of current politics is a good grasp of history. As someone who loves history, I know that once you start studying it, the first thing you learn is how little you know. Pronouncements beginning with "Canada is..." and "the United States has become..." often display more about the speaker's knowledge of history - or lack thereof - than anything.

History is always open to interpretation, of course, and choices of emphasis, and myth, and propaganda, and anti-propaganda. The truth is never as simple as the facts. But it's impossible to understand current events - any current events, anywhere - without at least a basic knowledge of the history behind them.

US culture is famously ahistorical - all new! all the time! - and most of the public is willing to accept whatever's in front of them, devoid of context. This is very useful for a government that wants to declare various nations The Enemy at any given time.

Trying to understand relations between Canada and the US, I've been surprised at how, historically, they've been - to put it mildly - highly strained. I had imagined Canada-US relations to be generally peaceful and benign, but that's because I hadn't read history from a Canadian point of view.

This historical overview of relations between the two neighbours is on the "In Depth" section of the CBC news website.
So, how's it going, eh?

The relationship between North America's two largest countries may have been a bit testy as the 20th century wrapped up and the 21st began. But compared to the 18th and 19th centuries, it was an arm-in-arm stroll through the park.

In the years following the American war of Independence, the United States and British North America relations were testy at best. People opposed to the American break with Britain headed north and settled in what would become New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario.

There was a movement south of the border that argued for an invasion – and annexation – of parts of what would become Canada. Britain was tied up fighting Napoleon's European ambitions and many Americans saw that as an opportunity to strengthen the new republic's security.

In 1812, the Americans invaded southern Ontario – but met much stiffer resistance than expected. By 1814, the war had ended with neither side making gains of note.

Relations between the two countries slowly but steadily improved after the war – until the 1837 rebellion in Upper and Lower Canada. The Canadian rebels – who sought more domestic and less British control of the government – received support from Americans in bordering states. Some of the Americans who were captured were tried and hanged. Others were shipped off to penal colonies in Australia. A few were sent home because they were deemed too young to have known better.

By the time Canada was officially a country in 1867, the United States was busy repairing the divisions caused by civil war. But by 1876, cross-border tensions would rise again. After annihilating General Custer and his army at Little Big Horn, Chief Sitting Bull and 3,000 of his followers slipped into what would become Saskatchewan. The Mounties spent the next five years working to keep the Sioux and the U.S. Army from launching cross-border raids on each other. By 1881, the Sioux were persuaded to return to the U.S.

In the years that followed, relations between Canada and the U.S. ebbed and flowed, mainly over economic matters, or boundary disputes. In 1903, an international tribunal imposed a settlement over a long-running dispute over the boundary between Alaska and British Columbia. A British judge on the panel sided with the Americans. Then prime minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier complained that because Canada had to rely on Britain to negotiate treaties, Canada could not adequately protect its international interests.

It wasn't as though Ottawa could ask its ambassador to Washington to deliver a sharply worded letter to the American president when these disputes flared up. Canada didn't have its own representative in Washington until 1944, when Leighton McCarthy was appointed. Before that, Canada was officially represented by the British, and unofficially represented by Canadian diplomats operating from legations in major world centres like Washington, London and Paris.

By 1957, Canada and the U.S. had jointly set up NORAD, the North American Air Defence Command. But the economy – and the growing American influence over Canadian industry – was catching the attention of Canada's new prime minister, John Diefenbaker. He argued for Canadian independence from U.S. influence. Following two decades of heavy U.S. investment in Canada. Americans controlled 70 per cent of the capital of Canada's petroleum and natural gas industry and 90 per cent of the auto industry.

The 1960s and 1970s featured testy relations right at the top. Diefenbaker said America's first president of the 60s –John F. Kennedy – was too young and brash for the job. When the U.S. announced its blockade of Cuba, it did so without telling Diefenbaker, which contravened the NORAD agreement. When Kennedy asked Diefenbaker to move Canadian troops into an advanced state of readiness, he didn't respond.

But compared to Lyndon Johnson and Lester Pearson, Kennedy and Diefenbaker were pals. In 1965, Pearson drew the ire of Johnson for suggesting in a speech that the U.S. cease bombing North Vietnam, and give negotiation a chance. At a lunch at Camp David later, an angry Johnson grabbed Pearson by the collar, lifted him off the ground and shouted, "You pissed on my rug!"

Relations between Canadian and American leaders hit a modern low with Pierre Trudeau at 24 Sussex Drive and Richard Nixon in the White House. In 1969, tensions between Canada and the U.S. peaked as Ottawa openly criticized the U.S. role in the Vietnam war and opened Canadian borders to American draft dodgers. Nixon was widely quoted as calling Trudeau an "asshole." Trudeau shrugged and said, "I've been called worse things by better people."

It wasn't until the mid-1980s that a Canadian prime minister and an American president would enjoy close relations. Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan became close friends. But that didn't prevent the birth of the softwood lumber dispute in 1984, an issue that would dog the two countries for two decades. It also made it easier for the two sides to negotiate the Free Trade Agreement in 1988.

Relations continued to go relatively smoothly after Mulroney and Reagan left the scene. Jean Chretien and Bill Clinton enjoyed a good working relationship that included frequent trips to the golf course.

But the election of George W. Bush in 2000 signaled the first time in a decade and a half that ideological opposites occupied the highest offices in the two countries. Bush's first trip as president was to Mexico and not Canada, Washington's biggest trading partner.

In the days after the 2001 attacks on Washington and New York, Bush thanked several countries for their support. He didn't mention Canada. When Chr├ętien decided not to join the American-led attack on Iraq in 2003, Bush's schedule suddenly got too busy to accommodate a planned trip to Ottawa. The schedule did, however, permit Bush to entertain Australian Prime Minister John Howard at his Texas ranch on the days Bush was to have visited Canada. Australia had sent troops to Iraq.

Bush didn't make an official trip to Canada until Nov. 30, 2004 – after he had won a second term in office and after Chretien had stepped aside as prime minister for Paul Martin.

Bush used the visit to make his first major speech on foreign policy since his re-election. He didn't offer much on resolving the softwood lumber dispute – or ending the American ban on Canadian beef over fears of mad cow disease, even though there had been no cases of infected Canadian cattle in more than a year and a half.

Martin's decision – a few months later – not to join in Bush's proposed ballistic missile defence system also did not sit well. It was a decision Stephen Harper promised to revisit as he made mending fences with the United States a key part of his election campaign. His government also committed to signing a new NORAD treaty that will expand the air-defence agreement with the United States to include maritime surveillance.

Still, it didn't take Harper long as prime minister to ruffle a few American feathers when he stressed that Canada will invest heavily in protecting its claim to Arctic waterways – a claim Washington has never recognized.
The same page has links to background on the softwood lumber dispute, missile defence, mad cow disease and other issues that divide along the 49th parallel.


barefoot hiker said...

It's the same old thing. It's hard for us not the notice the US and be well aware of the ramifications of our relations with it. But we don't loom very large in the American psyche simply because we're not perceived as a threat. To be noticed by the US, you really have to be a threat. When everything's peachy, you're just so much 'unencorporated America', no matter where in the world you are, and not very interesting... after all, anything outside LA, NYC, LA, Washington and possibly Las Vegas -- and, oh yes, LA; let's not forget LA -- is dull and unworthy of mention on CNN. Again, unless it goes "BOOM" and Americans are involved somehow. Nothing like that has happened in Canada (with regard to the US) for a very long time, so of course the perception is it's all beaver-shaped sheep north of 49. :)

Scott M. said...

If you haven't checked it out yet, the CBC Archives is an amazing site for a look at modern history.

Wrye said...

I'm surprised that that timeline blurs over the fact that fears of American annexation (post-civil war, with a large, well armed and very hardened US Army) was a major spur to the formation of Canada in 1867. Since Canada hadn't been able to keep completely out of the war, this wouldn't have been all that hard to imagine at the time.

Hmm. I like Wikipedia's take:

The American Civil War had extremely important political effects on the BNA colonies. The tensions between the victorious North and Canada led to great concern for the security and independence of the colonies, creating an important motivational force for Canadian Confederation in 1867.

The bloody conflict also had an important effect on Canada's constitution. Leading Canadians decided that the secessionist war was caused by too much power being given to the states, and thus decided to create a more centralized federation. It was also believed that an excess of democracy, commonly referred to as mobocracy, was a contributing factor and the Canadian system was thus deliberately made less democratic with institutions such as the appointed Senate and powers of the British appointed Governor-General, who until the 1931 Statute of Westminster was an official of the United Kingdom government.

Granny said...

Interesting and Ft. Drumm is still sitting up there in northern NY.

I believe the history but I've always thought of Canada as a friend and neighbor. Of course, I'm just one person, not a country hell bent on destruction.

laura k said...

Canada has always been a friend to Americans in need of freedom - from slavery, from war, from wingnuts...

laura k said...

If you haven't checked it out yet, the CBC Archives is an amazing site for a look at modern history.

It is! I have it bookmarked for frequent use.

Wrye, good links - thanks.

Scott M. said...

Speaking of CBC, as a writer you might find this entertaining...

orc said...

>> the perception is it's all beaver-shaped sheep north of 49 <<

You left one important part out:

it's all snow covered beaver-shaped sheep north of 49.

laura k said...

it's all snow covered beaver-shaped sheep north of 49.

And everyone lives in igloos...

barefoot hiker said...

Now, if we could just get those igloos to explode while OJ was driving by in his Bronco with Bill O'Reilly, we'd be set.