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politics insider

Pollster Nik Nanos.The Globe and Mail

Nik Nanos is The Globe and Mail's pollster and chairman of Nanos Research. Follow him on Twitter at @niknanos.

Very soon – on March 10 – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will arrive in Washington to be fêted with the first state dinner for a Canadian PM in almost a decade. In the years since, Canada and the U.S. have witnessed the evolution of a complex relationship ranging from very close ally in war and peace and key trading partner through to strained, perhaps awkward relations. It hasn't been this complicated we both declared victory in the War of 1812 (British North America burned down the White House, though).

When the personal relationship between leaders is strong, such as it was under prime minister Brian Mulroney and president Ronald Reagan, it can yield policy dividends such as the Acid Rain Treaty and the Free Trade Agreement. When it's strained, it's like a "friend" screening your calls and putting you at the bottom of the priority list.

Interestingly, the research bears this out. In a survey conducted by Nanos for the Institute for Research on Public Policy back in 2011, Canadians said that the relationship between the president and the prime minister was more likely to be important in shaping a positive relationship than the relationship between citizens, elected officials or state/provincial governments.

Beyond the importance of cordial relations between the PM and the president, there are two broader issues which need to be realized for Canada to get the policy dividends it seeks with our most important trading partner, ally and friend.

First, is to ensure that Canada engages the U.S. not just as a neighbour but as a superpower.

Yes, we are a good neighbour and important ally, but the U.S. is a global superpower. While in Washington, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, it became very clear to me in my interactions with a diversity of thought leaders in the capital that although there is goodwill towards Canada, the primary frame for the Americans is "the USA is a superpower; how does Canada fit into our regional and global strategies?" This perhaps explains the sometimes awkward relationship between the previous Canadian administration and the White House. Our position was fundamentally based on "fairness" and being treated in accordance with our self-image as the good neighbour, and then the government was disappointed when the U.S. administration did not move on files such as the Keystone XL pipeline which the Harper government had as a priority.

Canada's likely best strategy is to articulate common goals as to how the U.S. can support the policy aspirations of Canada and then to say how Canada both supports and charts its own path on issues of importance to the U.S. as a superpower. Prosperity, fighting terrorism and the environment are the low hanging fruit for dialogue currently.

Second, we have to recognize the drift in positive public sentiment among Canadians and to lesser extent Americans over the past decade.

Tracking research done by Nanos with the State University of New York in Buffalo on the Canada-U.S. relationship suggests that the greater the distance from 9/11 we get, the more diminished the appetite is for co-operation on a range of things such as the border and national security. Over the past decade a series of irritants have had an impact on the public mood. Among them is the border.

With nine of 10 Canadians living within a one-hour drive of the U.S. border, crossing it is a real world practical experience. The reality is that a well-functioning Canada-U.S. border has been a casualty of domestic American politics in terms of concerns about security, threats of terrorism and the U.S. border with Mexico. The fact that the appetite for Canadians to co-operate on border security with the U.S. is on the decline (a 19-point drop in the past decade) is most likely a result of the experiences of Canadians at the border. Perhaps Canada should consider reframing dialogue on the border to focus on America's and Canada's regional prosperity aspirations.

What's clear is that both Canada and likely the U.S. are ready for a reset on their relationship. It will take more than the personal goodwill of the PM and President to make it happen. Canada needs to articulate its role in the partnership and for the U.S. it needs to understand that Canada is an economic linchpin for U.S. prosperity. Together, these views could help reshape and renew the dialogue. In that respect, the March 10 visit of Mr. Trudeau to Washington will be a key opportunity for Canada.