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Lessons From Washington: Americans Don't Care About Canada


What sort of event has the glitter and pizzazz to bring out statesmen, senators, magazine editors and think-tank wonks, not to mention swarms of bubbly Canadian exiles and tourists, to crowd one of Washington D.C.'s premier museums on a Thursday night?

Hard to believe, but the answer is "a panel discussion largely devoted to Arctic sovereignty and farm subsidies." On January 20, 2011, on the fiftieth anniversary of JFK's famous inaugural speech, and down the street from where he delivered it, Maclean's magazine hosted a roundtable on Canada-US relations in the Newseum, a cathedral of American journalism.

Around 6:30, as the crowd filtered in to the steeply tiered auditorium, it quickly established itself as Canadian. The row in front of me was the site of an exegesis on Goose Bay, Labrador. There was a small, if subdued, row about the geography. "Was it Goose Bay or Lab City?" one man asked his wife. They had apparently recently visited what some speak of as the other belle province. "Must have been Goose Bay." The couple was on a double date. The four of them seemed bent on imprinting this imperial capital with something distinctly Canadian.

The other man in the quartet struck up a conversation with a woman named Anne, who grew up in Saskatchewan. She said she lived in D.C. now. For how long, the man asked.

"I've lived in the US for 30 years," Anne replied. "I didn't want to live in Saskatchewan."

"Not in the winter," the man replied, grinning patriotically.

A woman two rows down from me chimed in with her own weather travails. She was from Ottawa. "It was minus 35 when I got on the plane," she said.

Well, nothing binds Canadians together like defiantly griping about the weather, and soon eight or ten people covering a handful of rows were chummily introducing themselves to one another, like kids at summer camp. They were from Edmonton, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan, Ottawa. It wasn't long, of course, before the conversation migrated to hockey.

Before the panel began, two men in business suits edged past me. Anne began flirting with them. They, too, were Canadian.  As ambassadors and academics strode onstage before us, Anne observed to the businessmen, "Well, hockey is more sophisticated than football." The businessmen grunted heartily in assent. She might as well have said, "I've found the sun rises in the East." 

By now, the panelists were taking their places. Tory Senator Pamela Wallin was brought on stage in a wheelchair. David Frum, the Canadian-born conservative journalist, glided to his chair in a black suit, arch and haughty as ever, looking slightly nauseous. Gary Doer, the one-time NDP premier of Manitoba and current Canadian ambassador to the U.S., looked and sounded for all the world like a prairies Joe Biden, his hands ever prone to back-slapping. Peter Van Deusen, the venerable Canadian TV host, solemnly introduced the panelists, and the night's subject: "Canada and the US: Best Friends or Perfect Strangers?"

Then he added some levity: one of the issues the panel would address, he said, was why Washington D.C. had such a superior hockey team to Ottawa's. "It must be a Russian thing," he concluded, referring to the Capitol's star Aleksander Ovechkin.

It was a good line and it got laughs. It also telegraphed Van Deusen's awareness of his audience. The event was being shown on C-SPAN2, as well as CPAC. Even if the panel was being shunted off to America's political B-channel, Americans were watching. A couple dozen at least, surely. And Americans have a pretty strong sense that Canadians like hockey more than almost anything. Thus Van Deusen's quip.

The Canadians on the panel and in the audience had no trouble acting to type. Soon after Van Deusen's joke, Gary Doer slid in with a hockey crack of his own. After speaking about the tension between the two countries during the Olympics, Doer added, "Thanks God we won that final hockey game." The crowd absolutely lost it. Whoops, whistles, extended applause. Of course, the game meant nothing in the US relative to its importance in Canada. Very much like most issues in the Canada-US relationship, it turns out.

I suspect CPAC's correspondent in D.C., Luiza Savage, was right when she said that Canada was a "small blip" on the radar of American policymakers. And, other than the tar sands, which earned a detailed study in the Washington Post that week, Canadian concerns don't really venture into "big blip" territory, to be fair.

Among the litany of aphid-sized issues Canadians are shocked to discover Americans don't care about: the tightening border; something called a "continental security perimeter"; Canada's role in Afghanistan; and, of course, Arctic sovereignty.

The Maclean's columnist Paul Wells, to his credit, swiftly labeled our battles with Norway over the Lancaster Straight and environs—what some have given the highfalutin title of Arctic sovereignty—"a dumb issue." Pamela Wallin, apparently a great champion of frozen wastelands near and far, was sitting next to Wells. And when he began describing just why this Conservative pet issue was as dumb as he thought it was, Wallin looked like she had swallowed a fish bone. 

"Country-of-origin labeling"—or COOL, as think-tanks call it—is another issue that makes Canadian policymakers put their dukes up, while their American counterparts yawn and roll their eyes. The debate, if you can call it that, centers around what nationality we deem frozen corn grown in Canada but processed in the US, etc.

"We may fight about canola here and another product down there," Ambassador Doer said at one point. Wait a second. How is it that CNN hasn't picked up on the Great North American Canola War, which so divides our two nations? Maybe it's a cold war.

Either way, the two Americans who sat on stage—Christopher Sands of the Hudson Institute and Maryscott Greenwood, a lawyer working on trade policy—were sensitive to this peculiar Canadian chippiness. They were old hands at Canadian-American relations, and made sure to utter cooing, reassuring caveats any time they said something critical of Canada.

"With all due respect," "no offense," and "no insult intended" were deployed freely when Canada came up—only by the Americans, of course. But despite their caution, Sands and Greenwood managed to place some stinging barbs in the delicate Canadian ego.

Sands, for one, referred to Canada as both a "smaller dog" and a "little brother" vis-a-vis our elderly Rottweiler sibling. And his next description of the True North had us in the position of the senile, easily spooked granny: "We've never done well with Canadians when we surprise them. That doesn't work."

Even I recoiled a bit at his imagery.

Still, Greenwood's slights were more brutal. In the late 1990s, when Bill Clinton appointed her chief of staff to the American embassy in Ottawa, she said she had to look up the Canadian capital in a guidebook. As implausible as this story is—I imagine Clinton would, at the very least, have given her directions to her new job when he hired her—it displays the flippancy with which Americans treat Canada. Even the ones in charge of diplomatic relations between the countries.

What I saw that night at the Newseum amounted to a strange, maudlin cycle—a small dog chasing a bigger dog's tail. It goes like this: Canadians have parochial, slightly absurd cultural and policy interests; Americans, therefore, pay Canadians little mind; and Canadians, anxious about this lack of attention, soup up the parochialism and absurdity to attract the American eye.

As I walked out the door of the Newseum—the White House about three blocks away—I reflected on this dilemma. But before I reached the door, an attendant working for the Maclean's-CPAC consortium chased me down and thrust something at me. It was a Nanaimo bar, wrapped in maple leaf-embossed plastic. To highlight Canada's world-renowned fudge culture, I guess.

Related on

—A More Perfect Union
—Interview With Les Horswill
A Letter to Maclean's From a Concerned Asian Parent

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