Political Hay

Martin’s Muddle

The good news: Canada’s brand new prime minister may be more pro-American than Howard Dean.

By 12.15.03

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EDMONTON -- It was a small slip, but a telling one in terms of U.S./Canada relations. On Friday, the Canadian networks were covering the transition of the Prime Minister-ship from Jean Chretien, going out, to Paul Martin, coming in. As the TV cameras panned over car after chauffeur-driven car depositing happy new cabinet ministers on the steps of the Governor General's house for the swearing-in ceremony, commentators were doing their best to talk some interest into this rather boring parade of politicians.

One network flashed an image on screen of the CNN website that contained the headline "Pro-American takes over as Canadian Prime Minister." The conversation went something like this:

News Anchor: Paul Martin's talked an awful lot about repairing Canada/U.S. relations. Well, some American newspapers are running some pretty positive headlines.

Commentator (former Liberal cabinet minister): Well, that's a headline you certainly wouldn't see in a Canadian newspaper, but as long as the Americans believe it, that's great.

News Anchor: He-he.

And that was it, cut to the parade, on to a new topic.

But hold it a second, rewind that. What did that commentator say? He said, in effect, that Canadians don't want to think of themselves as allies of the U.S., but Canadians certainly want Americans to think they are.

That's a little two-faced, don't you think? Besides, there are something like 293 million Americans and 32 million Canadians. This phony friendship thing is going to be a tough thing to fake.

But of course it is not quite like that. Canadians, like Americans, are not all of one mind.

Americans should understand the fault line in the Canadian political psyche runs along partisan lines parallel to American Republican/Democratic ones. If you are a Canadian who supports the Liberals -- in power now for 10 years consecutively -- you are probably shaded and jaded with anti-Americanism, but you weren't just a few years back. Clinton bombs Serbia back to the stone age? Count us in. Bush attacks Iraq? Outrageous! Illegal! If you support the Conservatives, you are no doubt pro-American... for the moment.

Of course this is not absolute; but in general -- for Doug and Kathy Canuck who don't expend a lot of mental energy trying to remember who controls Congress or the Senate or even what they do -- it applies.

This is Paul Martin's dilemma. He wants good relations with the U.S. because he knows this is good for his country. He has something of a business background and Canada does most of its international business, something like 80 percent of its trade, with the U.S. Canadian big business understands this, too.

But he is head of the Liberal Party. A lot of Martin's supporters, the people who actually vote, are at present reflexively anti-American because a Republican is in the White House. A few Americans might remember that the Canadian prime minister's director of communications, Françoise Ducros, infamously called George Bush "a moron" just over a year ago. Well, a lot of Canadian Liberals agreed with her, and it's a safe bet they still do.

So, if you are Paul Martin, what to do, what to do? On the one hand, he has to pander to the Mini-Me Democrats in Canada, while at the same time condescend to the Real Republicans in Washington.

Fate tossed Martin a curving puff ball on Sunday morning when it was announced that American forces had captured Saddam Hussein. Canada of course is not among "the coalition of the willing," but even as the sun was coming up and most Canadians were still in their beds, Martin made his first foray into international politics as leader by dashing off messages of congratulations to both President Bush and Tony Blair for bagging the former dictator.

It seemed like a no-brainer, but one wonders how these will be received by the citizens of those countries. Sure, Canada wasn't willing to back you in the war, but now that the hated tyrant crawled out of a hole, alone, bewildered, and blinking like a sleepy vagrant, we're with you all the way! Now, about those contracts for rebuilding Iraq…

Of course, Canadians remember that Martin supported Chretien's decision not to join the coalition that invaded and occupied Iraq, but the American public, to judge by the headlines that had appeared on Friday, is blissfully unaware of that fact.

When Martin announced his new cabinet, he made sweeping changes, bringing in 22 fresh ministers and retaining only 16 from Chretien's government. One person who kept his job was the foreign affairs minister, Bill Graham, who vigorously defended Canada's decision not to go to war without the blessing of the U.N. The American public probably didn't notice that either.

U.S. Ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci probably did take note of the fact that Martin created a new portfolio, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, supposedly akin to the American Office for Homeland Security, and he may report that back to Washington. This may even make the papers somewhere in the States. What will certainly not be reported (because it is very dull) is that the person in charge of it, an intelligent woman name Ann McLellan, in her previous two portfolios (justice, health) made a lot of noise but accomplished very little.

To top it off, the new prime minister appointed one Scott Brison to assist him "in developing an integrated approach to Canada's multi-dimensional relationship with the United States." Mr. Brison was a sitting member of the newly created Conservative party (a merger of two older parties) only a week before Martin became prime minister. Some even considered him leadership material. Then to everyone's shock and surprise he crossed the floor and joined the ruling Liberals, saying he had no desire to be a member of a "conservative debating club." No doubt this local Jim Jeffords will put his stamp on the face of Canada's relationship with the U.S. -- whichever face that happens to be, on any given day.

It is true that what might seem inconsistent in one country might make perfect sense in another. There is nothing wrong with Canadian politicians doing what is right for Canada, even if American don't understand it or approve. The problem is, many Canadians seem to have lost the ability to decide what is good for them…beyond the next American election, that is.

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About the Author

Kevin Steel is a writer, graphic designer, and musician. He runs the website KevinSteel.org.