Politics and Prejudices: Treating Canada like, uh, spit 

Lower Americans, which is what we really are, geographically (and often otherwise) tend to disrespect Canada, our most important friend, ally, and trading partner.

Not only haven't we expressed gratitude for their picking up all Michigan's expenses for the badly needed new bridge over the Detroit River — our government wouldn't even pay for its own customs plaza.

Canada sighed and rolled its eyes, or would have if an entire nation could. This is nothing new. We've been doing it for well over a century: Sometimes on purpose; more often, out of our usual boorish insensitivity and absent-mindedness.

Back in the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson once grabbed Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson by his lapels and screamed at him, "Don't you come into my living room and piss on my rug!"

Poor old Mike Pearson hadn't in fact ignored the toilet; all he had done is make a speech calling for a bombing halt in Vietnam. LBJ also usually called Pearson by the wrong first name, and sometimes confused him with the British prime minister. Other presidents have openly insulted Canadians or attempted to walk all over them.

Congress, if possible, has been worse. After Pierre Trudeau, who was regarded as a world statesman, addressed a joint session in 1977, one member from Milwaukee said he was impressed because "some members of Congress didn't know a Canadian could speak such good English."

Back then, Canada felt mainly ignored. Sondra Gotlieb, an accomplished and outspoken novelist, was the wife of Canada's ambassador to Washington back in the Reagan era. "For some reason, a glaze passes over people's faces when you say Canada. Maybe we should invade South Dakota, or something," she mused. Sadly, they never did.

Canada's problem is that she is like a sensible, usually sweet woman married to a bully. Though Canada is just as large geographically as the United States, it has barely more than a tenth of the population. Canadian politicians have long referred to it as a mouse sharing a bed with an elephant.

Years ago, Canadian columnist Allan Fotheringham said the problem was "the mouse still quivers. He fears sexual assault." Being crushed on purpose is more like it.

Things do, in fact, seem to be particularly bad right now. Despite our frequent boorishness, Canada and the United States have usually gotten along very well. Our nations really have been close, at least on most issues, and it really was the world's longest unguarded border, at least until Sept. 11, 2001.

There've been exceptions; President Clinton did seem to have a warm relationship with Canada's leaders, and Canadians will tell you that former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard was the best envoy Washington ever sent.

But those days are gone. Whatever you think of President Obama, relations with Canada have been especially bad in the last few years. The Globe and Mail, Canada's most important newspaper, ran a long story last month saying that U.S. Ambassador Bruce Heyman has been more or less frozen out by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government, in part, evidently because he brought the arrogant attitude of a former investment banker to the diplomatic table.

Mostly, however, there is a chilly atmosphere between Harper and Obama, who have never warmed to each other.

Not even the Canadians would put all the blame for that on Obama; Harper is not notorious for charm. But even his detractors think the United States could show some respect.

Whatever you think of the Keystone XL pipeline project, Canada is fully committed to it. Douglas George, Canada's current counsel general in Detroit, knows something about energy issues; he is a former ambassador to Kuwait.

He knows something about this nation and this area too; he grew up in Sarnia right across the border from Port Huron, and came with his friends to many a concert in Detroit.

Though environmentalists have legitimate Keystone concerns, George told me "this is something that offers both our nations the chance for energy independence from the Middle East and Venezuela."

Shortly after that, President Obama flatly declared he would veto a Keystone bill if one reached his desk.

One has the sense that Canada is less offended by Obama's opposition to Keystone than they are that he didn't seem to take Canada's position seriously.

Closer to home, much the same is true for the New International Trade Crossing bridge. The bridge is vital to the economies of both our nations; Canada's even more than ours.

In a perfect world, representatives of both countries would have sat down a decade ago and thrashed out where and how to build it and how to divide the costs.

But Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun was able to prevent that, by giving Michigan legislators legal bribes known as "campaign contributions." But Canada stepped up.

They advanced Michigan the money needed, in what amounts to an interest-free $550 million loan that is to be paid back — someday — out of our state's share of the toll revenue.

Though nobody mentions this, what this really means is that Canada will lose millions on the deal, thanks to inflation.

Canada did think Washington should pay for the customs plaza an international border crossing requires. After all, even poor countries pay for their own diplomatic installations.

But the Obama administration embarrassed itself by not even stepping up to ask Congress for the $250 million or so needed for an immigration and customs facility.

To be fair, even if Obama had, the Republicans who now control both houses of Congress might well have denied it.

Matty Moroun has given money to a number of GOP congressmen, including freshman U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester Hills) who has vowed to stop the new bridge.

So Canada is picking up that expense too. Oh, they expect to be reimbursed from our share of the duties, maybe half a century from now. There's no real danger relations between our two countries will get too chilly.

Each needs the other too much. Last month, Canada and the U.S. signed a new initiative that should soon eliminate much of the hassle of crossing the border by land, sea, or air.

The relationship is intact. But we've shown little class when it comes to the way we've treated our most reliable ally and friend. Ten years from now, if the new bridge is indeed up and running, and you have a job, especially in any job that is related to manufacturing, you might think about doing something our government should be doing right now.

Thank a Canadian.


Jack Lessenberry is head of the journalism program at Wayne State University and the senior political analyst for Michigan Public Radio.

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