TORONTO — Every time a new American president is sworn-in, Canadians brace themselves.
The reaction was best explained by a Canadian prime minister, the late Pierre Trudeau, during a speech to a Washington audience four decades ago: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant; no matter how friendly or even-tempered is the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”
The image largely describes the trepidations of living on the American empire’s northern flank, culminating in the collective fear of the colossus rolling over and smothering Canada’s culture, economy or sovereignty.
Perhaps as a mechanism of self-defence, Canadians developed an exaggerated sense of superiority. We firmly believe our society is better in almost every way, inevitably pointing to our government health care insurance program for all residents as ultimate proof.
Then along comes Barack Obama.
A majority of Canadians, relieved the Bush era was finally at an end, looked south with envy during the election last fall. Compared to Obama’s inspirational campaign, our political leaders seemed small-minded and stale.
Yet three weeks before Obama’s victory, Canadians re-elected the Conservative party to lead a minority government, with Stephen Harper as Prime Minister. The Toronto Star’s Jim Travers, one of Canada’s more astute political columnists, emphasized the paradox by describing Harper’s Conservatives as “the last George W. Bush Republicans left standing.”
There will likely be few chances to see the ideological differences clash: Although Obama is making Canada his first foreign state visit, he has more pressing international priorities and Canadians are accustomed to being ignored or taken for granted by U.S. administrations.
But three broad issues will at some point encourage Obama to look north – energy and the environment, free trade and border security, and the war in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan might become the most difficult. Frank Graves, head of EKOS Research, a Canadian firm that conducts opinion polls on both sides of the border, notes few Americans are aware that Canadian soldiers have been fighting in Afghanistan since 2002.
Some 2,500 Canadian soldiers are based in the southern Afghanistan province of Kandahar, scene of some of the heaviest fighting against Taliban insurgents. So far, 107 Canadians have been killed and hundreds wounded. The ultimate cost of the mission has been estimated at $20 billion.
Popular support for the mission eroded quickly. Canadians are used to their soldiers acting as UN peacekeepers, not warriors. With opposition mounting, Harper announced earlier this year that Canada would withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in 2011.
But Obama has promised a surge of troops in Afghanistan and it’s expected he’ll pressure Canada to extend its mission beyond 2011. The pressure began last month when US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates met with commanders at Kandahar Air Field and told reporters “the longer we can have Canadian soldiers as our partners the better it is.”
Harper, who would have sent soldiers to the Iraq war if he had been Prime Minister at the time, will be tempted to comply. But recent poll results indicate “Canadians will decisively reject the US call” to extend the mission, Graves says.
“Obama doesn’t enjoy carte blanche with the Canadian public,” he adds. “The halo effect doesn’t cut across all areas.”
Prospects look better on the environmental front. Obama has promised to impose a mandatory cap on greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Harper recently vowed to try and expand Obama’s proposal into a “cap-and-trade” system between the U.S. and Canada. Limits on emissions would be set for each major polluting industry and those below their limit could sell emission permits to those that exceed them.
Complicating these efforts will be the Alberta tar sands, an area the size of Florida being mined of bitumen in the western Canadian province. It creates 1.3 million barrels of oil a day, most of which goes to the U.S. The tar sands are partly responsible for Canada being on track to grossly violate the carbon emission limits it agreed to under the Kyoto Protocol.
Obama’s advisers have criticized the “dirty oil” coming from the tar sands. But it remains to be seen whether concern for the environment tops U.S. desires for energy security and Canadian dependency on oil revenues.
Most worrying for the Canadian government is Obama’s campaign pledge to renegotiate the NAFTA free trade agreement to get better terms for the U.S. and, presumably, poorer ones for Canada and Mexico. With $2 billion in trade daily between Canada and the U.S., countless Canadian jobs depend on an open border. Canadians also hope Janet Napolitano, Obama’s pick for homeland security chief, eases a series of new border security measures that have made the flow of people and goods more restrictive.
Whatever the outcome of these issues, Canadians know they’ll have to deal with the fallout from many more as their mammoth neighbor twitches and grunts.