Living beside the United States, remarked Pierre Trudeau, is like sleeping with an elephant: "No matter how friendly or temperate the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt." The twitching is getting to the Harper government and it has responded with a series of pokes.
A trio of senior ministers – John Baird, Joe Oliver, Greg Rickford – travelled to New York this month to voice what Stephen Harper calls our "profound disappointment" over the delayed Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline. Said Mr. Oliver: "This isn't right, this isn't fair."
In Winnipeg, Agriculture Minister Gary Ritz accused the United States of behaving like a "schoolyard bully" over country-of-origin labelling.
Last week in Washington, Ambassador Gary Doer and MP Rob Merrifield delivered an invitation from House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer to Republican House Speaker John Boehner to visit Canada for discussions on KXL and other issues.
If the Obama administration wants further evidence that Canada deserves some attention it should watch the recent exchange between former ambassador Frank McKenna and U.S. Ambassador Bruce Heyman. "It's like a marriage. It might be really good for you but I've got some problems," said Mr. McKenna of Canadian frustration over KXL and financing the Windsor-Detroit customs plaza.
Canada-U.S. relations operate on three levels: international, intermestic and people-to-people.
Ours is a complex relationship that goes beyond the traditional diplomatic conventions. Supported by the hidden wiring of connections between provinces and states, business and civil society, it is usually a model for neighbourly relations.
In international summitry, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Harper are aligned on the big-ticket issues of peace and security, banking and finance, even if they differ on approaches to climate change.
It's on the transactional level of trade and commerce that we have problems, with KXL top of the list. For Canada, KXL is the problem with the partner. For the United States, KXL is a problem with a partner.
Hillary Clinton is right when in Toronto last week she told Mr. McKenna that KXL shouldn't be a "proxy" for the relationship.
But KXL raises the question: Does the Obama administration have a strategic sense of Canada? We now supply more oil to the U.S. than OPEC. Increasingly, it travels by rail although, as the State Department acknowledged again this month, pipe is safer.
Ms. Clinton calls Canada an "indispensable partner," but we aren't feeling the love. Any serious White House study should result in renewed appreciation of Canada's strategic importance. Pushing forward the border and regulatory initiatives would be welcomed.
Franklin Roosevelt set the framework through a series of trade and security agreements. This approach – Canada as a reliable ally; the U.S. as a trusted trade partner – has been followed by most subsequent administrations.
Its logic holds. The emerging international order is looking more like that of Roosevelt's era – a multipolar system of sovereign states pursuing national interests. It will put a premium on reliable allies and trade partners.
Last month in Montreal, Ambassador Doer outlined a North American clean energy strategy, one that includes water. Water, says Mr. Doer, will make the debate about going from 85 to 86 pipelines "look silly."
First: energy efficiency – sharing best practices on oil and gas, wind, solar and other alternatives. We've already adopted harmonized standards on tailpipe emissions for cars and trucks. Oil patch collaboration is improving environmental performance, especially on water.
We've three carbon-pricing experiments under way: British Columbia's carbon tax; Alberta's emissions reduction fund; Quebec's cap-and-trade. Saskatchewan is experimenting with carbon capture and storage.
Second: energy reliability and renewability. Complete the hardening of our pipelines and electrical transmission grid systems and recognize hydropower within renewable energy standards.
Having led the world in shale development, North American energy ministers should develop continental fracking standards for next year's leaders' summit in Canada and then present them at the Paris climate talks.
Mr. Doer's constructive approach underlines another lesson in managing Uncle Sam: We do best when, through initiatives advancing our shared interests, we make their agenda "our" agenda.
On becoming prime minister, Mr. Harper promised a "new tone" in the U.S. relationship, banishing the drama of the later years under Paul Martin.
Twitches and grunts notwithstanding, Mr. Harper's initial instinct for a constructive approach to the United States is still sensible.