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Something less than a love-hate relationship

DISCUSSIONS | June 05, 2006

William French, Toronto

1955 Nieman fellow; retired from the Globe and Mail, Toronto

It would be an exaggeration to say that Canadians have a love-hate relationship with the United States, but historically there has been an ambivalence in our attitude. It's based partly on envy of our neighbor's wealth and power - the kid at the candy store window syndrome - and partly on resentment when the United States becomes the bully and uses its muscle

to try to achieve its aims. Yet we know our economic health depends on our neighbor; we are each other's biggest trading partner. And a key element of our defense is through our shared responsibility in the North American Air Defense Treaty - NORAD. We are avid consumers of American entertainment and culture on television, in cinemas and on magazine racks, without the protection of the language barrier enjoyed by Mexico (except for certain parts of Quebec).  But we still can't help being in turns amused and aghast at the sometimes bizarre antics of our neighbors; on those occasions, we revel in our differences.

Those differences and tensions have been aggravated since 9/11. Problems began almost immediately when the U.S. administration charged that some of the hijackers had entered the United States from Canada, which turned out not to be true. The latent anti-American sentiments in this country have increased as the war in Iraq drags on. The decision by then Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chr├ętien not to join the Iraq adventure, despite pressure from Washington, was widely applauded.

Post 9/11 abuses of traditional civil rights in the United States are widely criticized here (although the Canadian government is not blameless either). Specific incidents and actions of the Bush administration have roiled the waters, especially the case of Maher Arar, an Ottawa computer expert and naturalized Canadian. He was changing planes in New York on his way home from a holiday in Tunisia when he was detained by U. S. security on flimsy evidence, hustled off to his native Syria where he was tortured and spent almost a year in jail. No evidence has been found that he had terrorist connections, and he is now safely back in Ottawa.

Washington has long complained that Canadian immigration policies are too lax and the long Canadian-American border too porous, and has taken steps that Canadians find irritating to change the situation. One new proposal is that Canadian airlines on domestic flights - say between Toronto and Vancouver or Toronto and Halifax - must send the names of all passengers to Washington for clearance if those flights enter American air space (which they do, as a short-cut). The airlines are thus faced with a bureaucratic labyrinth or the extra cost of longer flights.

Proposed new passport regulations pose a serious threat to the vital tourist industry. Canadians entering the United States will require a passport, ending a long tradition of easy entry, but more important, Americans will need a passport or some new form of identity card to get back into their own country after a visit here. (Only about one in five Americans now has a passport.) The general opinion is that most won't bother coming, faced with the extra expense and effort.

The defeat of the Liberal government in last January's election may signal a thaw in relations. The new Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is clearly trying to patch things up with the Bush administration. One of the first things he did was end a decades-old tariff dispute over Canadian softwood lumber, essential to the American construction industry, on terms proposed by Washington that many observers believe violate some of the clauses of the North American Free Trade Agreement. So far there is little evidence that a majority of Canadians agree with Harper's new direction. That may not happen until after the next American presidential election.

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