Skip to main content
CANADA.-U.S. RELATIONS

Fifty years ago, U.S. officials had concerns about a 'flamboyant' Liberal leader rising to power and shaking up Canada's defence and foreign policies. (Sound familiar?) Colin Freeze looks at how their recently declassified daily briefings to the president reveal Trudeaumania caught them off-guard

Pierre Trudeau signs autographs for crowd of admirers in Ottawa on April 20, 1968, the day of his swearing in as prime minister of Canada. Mr. Trudeau, who replaced prime minister Lester Pearson after his resignation, ran in a general election two months later and won a majority government.

Pierre Trudeau signs autographs for crowd of admirers in Ottawa on April 20, 1968, the day of his swearing in as prime minister of Canada. Mr. Trudeau, who replaced prime minister Lester Pearson after his resignation, ran in a general election two months later and won a majority government.

JOHN McNEILL/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

To the world's most powerful spy agency, Canada is almost never considered a country worth bothering about.

Unless, say, a Trudeau is elected prime minister. Then the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency starts to raise high-level questions about its northern neighbour's commitment to continental security and international military coalitions.

"Trudeau's Liberal Party won handily in yesterday's election," reads a CIA briefing note sent to the president. "Trudeau can now move quickly to set in motion his promised review of Canada's foreign and domestic policies."

This note is from 1968, and it holds one of the rare mentions of Canada contained in the CIA-written Presidential Daily Briefs of that era. A recently released trove of nearly a decade's worth of documents can be found on the spy agency's website.

The declassified notes from the 1960s reveal how U.S. intelligence analysts started using the briefing notes to summarize a dangerous world with bullet-point brevity.

Fifty years ago, the CIA was mostly scrambling to keep tabs on how the Vietnam War was evolving and also glean insights into how a resurgent Russia was flexing its military muscles. The agency's analysts also had to monitor a host of other potential conflicts – for example, how Syria and Iraq were devolving into disarray, how Afghanistan and Pakistan were feuding, and how violence was erupting in the Congo.

But plus ça change: With the exception of Vietnam, each of these countries remains of deep concern to the United States today.

The released materials show that the CIA calculus about Canada changes during federal elections. At that point, the White House may well want to calibrate just how much a new prime minister will remain an ally.

The records show that, in prime minister Pierre Trudeau's day, the CIA wanted to keep the president up to speed about Mr. Trudeau's promise to withdraw many Canadian troops from North Atlantic Treaty Organization missions.

A half-century later, Justin Trudeau is prime-minister-designate. And Washington is already chattering about his pledge to pull Canadian Forces warplanes from their Middle East bombing runs. "We hope that we can continue to count on their ongoing support for this very important mission," a presidential spokesman said this week.

But no really knows what "top secret" notes the CIA is writing about Canada today.

MORE READING ON THE TRUDEAUS


Canadians vote in a second Trudeau: A look back at the first ‘Trudeaumania’

1:02

MORE READING ON FOREIGN POLICY