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TORONTO – When President Barack Obama decided that Canada would be the site of his first foreign visit, there was great joy in this cold land.
With our economy and politics a mess, and winter winds slashing about like razor blades, Canadians greeted the news of the Feb. 19 visit with glowing hearts, to borrow a image from our national anthem.
Some immediately began preparations to travel from far and wide to descend on Ottawa for a glimpse of the embodiment of hope, history and celebrity.
“This was like a multiplier of a Papal visit, the Rolling Stones in their prime and Nelson Mandela all wrapped up in one,” said high-profile commentator Rex Murphy.
But late last week the first details of the visit trickled out, leaving some feeling snubbed.
Obama will spend barely six hours in Canada, arriving at 10 a.m. and leaving at 4 p.m., according to sources quoted by the Canadian Press news agency. Defying expectations, he won’t be making a speech, not even to the House of Commons, the elected branch of Canada’s Parliament. He won’t go to visit the acting head of state, Michaelle Jean, the country’s first black governor general. She’ll instead welcome him at the airport. And he won’t be making a public appearance, at least nothing that would give Canadians a chance to glimpse the man they so much want to see.
Obama’s officials have apparently insisted on a working visit focused solely on the economy. And so, the president will meet Prime Minister Stephen Harper, opposition leader Michael Ignatieff, staff from the U.S. embassy, hold a joint press conference with the prime minister, and then head back south.
Most commentators thought this was all well and good: Obama, after all, has his hands full trying to avoid a depression back home, and Canada’s not much of a priority. We should be grateful he’s coming at all, they said.
But Murphy undoubtedly captured the disappointment of many Canadians who expected something more.
“What’s the point of his visit if he’s hidden most of the time?” Murphy said during his weekly commentary on the state-owned CBC’s nightly news. “You may very well ask, in these conditions, why is he coming at all?”
“Is this a pass it off visit?” Murphy wondered. “He knows he’s got to come here sometime so he’s going through the motions, getting it over with. Looks to me like Air Force One is being called out to execute a tiny bit of business that could almost be handled on a cell phone. My guess is some people have somewhere already badly mismanaged the Obama visit.”
Murphy insisted that at the very least Obama should make a televised speech to elected members of the House of Commons.
“If what we hear is true, the first visit of Barack Obama as president outside the USA is shaping up to be flat, bottled up, nearly invisible and completely cut off from the real objects of any real visit — the people of Canada. As we hear it’s organized now, I’d say it’s little short of a brush off disguised as a visit. It isn’t too late to fix this and fixed it should be. As it stands a lot of people are going to be disappointed.”