Canadian Confederation came about largely from a fear that the colonies would be invaded by the United States. Great Britain's military budget was stretched pretty thin, and the time was right for giving Canadians peaceful independence. At the time, Secretary of State William Seward desperately wanted to expand the nation north. The story of how all of this led to Canadian nationhood is ably explained in author John Boyko's wonderful and informative 2013 work entitled Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation (reviewed here).
The relationship of the two nations began with a rocky start. Like Seward, President Ulysses Grant also had dreams of making Canada part of the United States. When the first Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald, visited Washington, D.C. in 1871, Grant did not want to meet with Macdonald and didn't even send any official to greet the Prime Minister on his arrival. The two men met twice, and Grant was cold towards Macdonald on both occasions.
Canada would be 66 years old before a US President visited Canada in an official capacity, although William Howard Taft loved to vacation in Quebec. Warren Harding made the first presidential visit to Canada on a Vancouver stopover from Alaska in 1923. (It was later in that same trip that Harding died in San Francisco.) Harding played a round of golf in Vancouver and made a very cordial speech, some of the words of which are memorialized in a monument in Vancouver's Stanley Park. (One of my favorite journal entries in this community is about a trip I made to Stanley Park to look for the monument, which I entitled Finding Warren Harding or Forgive Me My Trespasses.) Vancouver has another notorious connection to the Presidency. The Vancouver Cigar Company continues to advertise itself as being the place where Bill Clinton bought the infamous cigar mentioned in the report of Clinton's exploits with Monica Lewinsky.
The first consequential visit made by a President to Canada was when Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited Quebec City in 1936. “I have never heard a Canadian refer to an American as a ‘foreigner,’” Roosevelt said in Quebec City. “He is just an ‘American.’ And in that same way, in the United States, Canadians are not ‘foreigners,’ they are ‘Canadians.’” The partnership of Franklin D.Roosevelt and Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was an interesting one, as both men dominated their respective governments for much of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Each was the longest-serving leader of their respective nation, Roosevelt for 12 years and King for 22 years. Roosevelt's cordiality towards Canada is especially charitable, given than FDR would have more reason than most to hold a resentment against the nation. It was at his vacation home of Campobello Island, part of the Canadian province of New Brunswick, where FDR was struck with polio and lost the ability to walk.
Things have not always been so friendly, especially when the leaders came from opposite ends of the political spectrum. For example, in 2002 when Françoise Ducros, a top aid to then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, called President Bush "a moron," while Bush's staff called Chretien "dino", short for dinosaur. Even earlier than this there were times when relations were less than cordial. In a 1961 speech to the Canadian Parliament, President John F. Kennedy characterized the relationship between the U.S. and Canada by saying: "Geography has made us neighbours, history has made us friends, economics has made us partners, necessity has made us allies." But privately Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker said of President John F. Kennedy: "He's a hothead. He's a fool – too young, too brash, too inexperienced and a boastful son of a bitch!"
In 1965 at the height of the Vietnam War, Prime Minister Lester Pearson (winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in making Canada a leader in peace-keeping) visited President Lyndon Johnson at the White House. Pearson had just made a scathing speech the previous night, in which he was critical of US involvement in the Vietnam War. He appeared at the White House the next day to confront a livid Johnson. According to journalist Lawrence Martin, LBJ grabbed Pearson by the shirt collar, lifted the diminutive prime minister off of the floor and shouted, "You pissed on my rug!"
In 1969 Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau told the National Press Club in Ottawa that living next to the U.S. "is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly or temperate the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt." Two years later, in 1971 it was revealed that President Richard Nixon called Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau "an asshole" in his private tapes. Trudeau replied, "I've been called worse things by better people." Later that year, after Trudeau had left a session with Nixon in the Oval Office, and Nixon said to H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff: "That Trudeau, he's a clever son of a bitch." Trudeau so infuriated Nixon during the visit that Nixon called him "a pompous egghead" and told Haldeman: "You've got to put it to these people for kicking the U.S. around after what we did for that lousy son of a bitch. Give it to somebody around here." This was when Nixon ordered Haldeman to plant a negative story about Trudeau with columnist Jack Anderson.
But there have also been many instances of friendly and respectful relations. For example, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and President Ronald Reagan had a very strong relationship, likely because of their common conservative point of view. At one function on St. Patrick's day in 1985 when Reagan was visiting Canada, the two men joined together to "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." Mulroney would later speak at Reagan's funeral. In September of 2000 George H. Bush and his wife Barbara attended the wedding of Caroline Mulroney.
In 2001, following the September 11th tragedy, thousands of airline travelers were diverted to Canadian airports and given assistance. President George W. Bush, in a speech to Congress, thanked countries all over the world for standing with the United States in its fight against terror after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. He did not mention Canada. Some perceived this as a snub, but an aide to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said: "If it is anything, it is an indication that our support goes without saying." The aide was Françoise Ducros. In November of 2004, Bush received a chilly reception in Ottawa when he made his first state visit to Canada. About 5,000 protesters turned up on Parliament Hill, and a smaller group clashes with police outside the Chateau Laurier hotel.
On July 6, 2006, current Prime Minister Stephen Harper made his first official visit to Washington on Bush's 60th birthday. Harper was given the honour of staying at Blair House, the official White House guest quarters. The prime minister came bearing birthday gifts for Bush: a Calgary Stampede belt buckle and an RCMP Stetson hat.
Relations between Harper and Barack Obama are somewhat mysterious. Obama made his first state visit to Canada in 2009, but has shown little interest since then, although the two nations did cooperate in the bailout of General Motors. Among the issues causing tension are the Keystone XL pipeline (Obama does not support a proposed pipeline from Alaska to the 48 states through Canada, while Harper sees economic advantages to Canada), the new Detroit-Windsor bridge that Ottawa has essentially offered to build for Michigan (but the Obama administration will not kick in $250 million for a needed customs plaza at the same time the U.S. Senate wants to spend tens of billions reinforcing the southern border with Mexico), a dispute over improvements to the Peace Bridge at Fort Erie, and differences of opinion over Israel. On the latter issue, Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to broker yet another peace agreement, while Harper has pledged unwavering support of Israel.
The future of relations between the two countries will face many more challenges. Canada is attempting to negotiate a free trade deal with China and other Pacific rim nations, and there are concerns that this will decrease trade between Canada and the US with harm to the US economy from lost trade with Canada. The two nations have differing points of view on fundamental issues such as gun laws and socialized health care. On the other hand, the United States Supreme Court recently did something that the Supreme Court of Canada did a decade ago: declare same-sex marriages legal across the nation, and during the Obama administration, many Americans obtained something that Canadians take for granted: socialized health care. And who knows, perhaps in just over 16 months, the United States may have its first Canadian-born President if Ted Cruz is elected, eh!
Whatever happens, it's more likely that our similarities will exceed our differences and the prophetic words of John Kennedy will continue to aptly describe the relationship between these two great neighbors and friends. Happy Canada Day!