James Nealon was the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Ottawa from 2010 to 2013. He is a Global Fellow at the Wilson Centre’s Canada Institute.
A few years ago, I walked into the Canadian Embassy in Washington and saw a map of the United States, broken down not only by state but congressional district as well. It showed how many billions of dollars in trade each did with Canada. That’s brilliant, I thought. I wish we had something comparable.
“We” meaning the U.S. embassy in Ottawa, where I was the deputy chief of mission. In retrospect, I guess I could have commissioned something similar. But I didn’t. And that’s just it. Canadians needed a map like that so they could show American members of Congress, chambers of commerce, think tanks and even U.S. officials that trade with Canada was vitally important to the U.S. economy – which of course it is. American diplomats such as me didn’t have the same problem. Canadians pretty much learn about the importance of the United States to Canada’s economy in their infancy, at the same time they learn that they won the War of 1812, and to say “sorry” when someone steps on their foot. We didn’t need to convince anyone of anything.
I vividly remember countless meetings with Canadian officials about issues great and small – softwood lumber, lobster wars, country of origin labelling, Quebec cheese, Afghanistan, overflowing border lakes, pipelines (sorry), salmon, Omar Khadr, pre-clearance, regulatory alignment, and of course, the border, the border and the border. It always went the same: I’d meet with my team, review some documents, ask for a one-page cheat sheet and walk over to Canada’s Foreign Ministry. I’d be met by at least a dozen (usually young, always well-groomed and well-dressed) civil servants, each with a gigantic binder of briefing materials in front of them. Canada’s best and brightest. And they never looked at the briefing materials because they all knew the material by heart. Uh-oh, I’d think, this isn’t good. And it always ended the same way. The Canadians would say, “That was a good discussion. Why don’t we write something up and show it to you?” It was brilliant.
I learned early on that Canada takes relations with the United States with the utmost seriousness as a matter crucial to national and economic security. You put your best people on the U.S. file. We, um, do things differently.
Like most Americans, I was ignorant of all things Canadian before I was posted there in 2010. Not for lack of interest or respect. To the contrary – I’d read some Canadian history (can you explain one more time what actually happened in 1867?); some Canadian literature (I prefer Farley Mowat to Margaret Atwood); and had some Canadian friends. I generally bought in to the prevailing narrative that you’re a lot like us, but you’re nicer to each other (except on a hockey rink); tend to murder each other less often; have universal health care that you all complain about; consider the United States your vacation hinterland; and believe you have a universal right to cross the border without being hassled. Even when you’re smoking pot.
Americans don’t learn anything about Canada in school, except that the Brits prevailed on the Plains of Abraham and that’s why we don’t speak French down here. Geography is also a big factor. I recently went fishing in far upstate New York, and most Americans consider that the edge of the known universe. It’s hard to get your hands around the notion that Pulaski, N.Y., is the balmy south for you guys.
Which leads us to my point. (Yes, I have a point.) Relax, Canada. Yes, American ignorance of Canada, especially at the highest levels, may currently be at a historical apogee. Yes, the North American free-trade agreement is in play, and yes, anyone who knows anything about international trade knows that NAFTA is responsible for millions of high-wage jobs in both countries. Yes, President Donald Trump’s decision on Thursday to slap tariffs on imports of Canadian steel and aluminum have infuriated Canadians, and made the future of NAFTA even more uncertain. Sure, tens of thousands of people are seeking asylum in Canada from the United States, overloading your system, but we’re working together to resolve the problem. Yes, we now look back longingly at the Bush-Mulroney relationship (“When Mulroney calls, I listen”), or the cooler but pragmatic and productive Harper-Obama relationship.
But the good news is that the rhetoric matters a lot in the short term, but not much in the long term. And, as Churchill said, you can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve exhausted all other possibilities. We’re currently exhausting those possibilities, but at the same time I’m certain that five years from now the Canada-U.S. relationship will still be the most consequential in the world. Our bilateral trade will still fuel our economies, the way we manage our border will still be a source of envy, and we’ll still be two countries that most of the rest of the world would like to live in.