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u.s.-canada relations

Stephen Harper characterized his government as ‘extremely pro-American’ but one that can stand up for Canadian interests.CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

After seven years as Prime Minister, Stephen Harper has just one complaint about relations with the United States: Americans still don't pay sufficient attention to Canada.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease in Washington, he says. "And we're not the squeaky wheel."

The Prime Minister offered up this gripe, unbidden, during a publicized sit-down interview with a Canadian-American business group in Ottawa Monday.

It's a revealing comment from a Prime Minister who came to office in 2006 vowing a stronger relationship with the United States. At the time,the Conservatives said past Liberal governments failed to make headway in Washington because they'd neglected the relationship with the Americans – a dynamic they vowed to change.

Today, however, Mr. Harper has a more nuanced perspective – one he offered as Canadians still wonder whether the White House will green-light a Canadian pipeline project to ship crude to Texas that was temporarily blocked this past January.

"My only complaint about the United States – and every Canadian will say this, but it's just the way it is – is we always like to have more attention in the United States," he told Maryscott Greenwood, a senior U.S. adviser to the Canadian American Business Council.

"We certainly pay a lot of attention to you; you sometimes don't pay enough attention to us."

The United States tends to focus on those who make the most noise, Mr. Harper said Monday, adding that this isn't how Canada operates.

His comments came during an interview in which he described his Conservative government as "extremely pro-American" but one that can stand up for Canadian interests without "any sense of anti-Americanism."

David Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, told reporters after Mr. Harper's comments that the Obama administration does "care very much what Canada thinks."

He suggested Canada is not alone in feeling it is not heeded enough. "I think that probably most every country in the world wishes the United States paid a little bit more attention to them," Mr. Jacobson said.

Canadian interests suffered a setback earlier this year when U.S. President Barack Obama put the Keystone XL pipeline on hold, citing environmental concerns about its proposed route for carrying crude oil to Texas from Alberta.

Mr. Harper, however, on Monday rejected the notion popularized by foreign-policy commentators earlier this year that Mr. Obama had "lost Canada" by alienating and neglecting the Canadian government during his first term in power.

"How Obama Lost Canada" was a widely read June, 2012, article in Foreign Affairs, a leading American foreign-policy journal, written by two Canadians, including Derek Burney, a former Canadian ambassador to the United States who also headed Mr. Harper's transition team when the Conservatives took office in 2006.

It suggested the Keystone pipeline delay, protectionist "Buy American" provisions and other measures had left Canada feeling jilted.

Asked about this Monday, the Prime Minister said he "completely disagreed" with the suggestion that Mr. Obama's conduct over the past four years had left Ottawa estranged.

He said Canada has no choice but to ensure the best alliance possible with the United States.

"I've always viewed that it's the responsibility of the government of Canada to have as good of a relationship as we can have while obviously protecting our relationship with the United States," Mr. Harper said.

The Prime Minister added that he felt he'd achieved much with the past two presidents, including the 2011 border perimeter security pact. This will see Canada work more hand-in-glove with the massive U.S. security bureaucracy to screen people and cargo for threats in order to smooth entry into the United States for Canadian goods and travellers. During the Bush administration, Mr. Harper also signed a truce to a long-running trade spat over softwood lumber.

Mr. Jacobson said the United States has wide-ranging interests but its relations with Canada are nevertheless a top priority.

"The fact of the matter is – that as we've seen over the last week or two – the world is sometimes a very tricky place. The United States has interests around the world but this is perhaps the most important relationship we have," he said of Canada.

Mr. Harper also admitted in the interview with Ms. Greenwood that the only time he wept while watching sports on TV was when the Toronto Argonauts lost the 1971 Grey Cup to the Calgary Stampeders.

"The reason I remember that so well is I think that was the only time I cried in front of the TV at a sports event," Mr. Harper said.

"We had been waiting for 20 years. Obviously, I was growing up in Toronto then and the Argonauts were my team."

He said as a Calgary MP, he's cheering for the Stampeders in this year's Cup match.