CHICAGO TRIBUNE: Woe, Canada? Things not so bad; There's nothing for Americans to fear

by Kevin J.Christiano

Woe, Canada? Things not so bad; There’s nothing for Americans to fear. Sure, there’s been a touch of SARS and just a hint of mad cow, but it’s safe to visit, and the Canadians are not crazy. Oh, and they’re still our friends. If all that doesn’t convince you, how about Barenaked Ladies?p.

Lately, no matter which American media you turn to for your daily dose of information, Canada has been taking it on the chin. In a kind of cosmic convergence of truly wretched publicity, news stories come beaming south about our northern cousins that seem practically designed to anger, annoy or scare Americans. The piqued politicians, reluctance on Iraq, laxity of laws, the spread of deadly diseases among animals and humans: Each is part of a string of events that threaten to upset Americans’ notions of Canada as a safe, sane and supportive neighbor.

Normally cordial relations between the two nations have sustained some damage, to be sure. During the run-up to the war in Iraq, a suburban Toronto member of parliament, Carolyn Parrish, strode away from a group of questioning reporters on Parliament Hill muttering, “Damn Americans. I hate those bastards.” Less direct was Herb Dhaliwal, the Canadian minister of natural resources. On the eve of the onset of “shock and awe,” a depressed Dhaliwal said of President Bush, “I think he’s let not only Americans, but the world, down by not being a statesman.”

The response of the United States to this criticism came in a tense and terse speech by Paul Cellucci, the U.S. ambassador to Canada. After discussions with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, the ambassador was emboldened to take the extraordinary step of chastising Canada for its failure to stand side by side with the United States in a time of war. Its government’s hesitation, Cellucci indicated, “disappointed” and “upset” his bosses in Washington, and he warned of significant consequences to come.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien then weighed in. On the way to Athens for a summit meeting, Chretien admitted to reporters on his plane that, once hostilities in Iraq commenced, he did not speak to his American counterpart for more than two months. Still, he tweaked Bush over his economic policies. Boasting of budget surpluses in Canada, Chretien reminded his listeners that “the Americans will have a deficit of $500 billion this year.” For its part, the White House was not pleased. Spokesman Ari Fleischer sternly attributed America’s red ink to the fact that “the U.S. was attacked on Sept. 11 and Canada was not, and the United States helped lead a war to bring freedom to the people of Iraq.”

Almost lost in the distraction of the war was another sure-fire cause of friction with the United States: A proposal is pending in Canada for decriminalizing possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana for individual use. John Walters, the Bush administration’s drug czar, had not been notified of the planned changes, and he absolutely fumed when he found out. The drug problem in Canada, he said, is “out of control.” He speculated that a greater availability of marijuana on the Canadian side would lead not only to closer scrutiny at border crossings but perhaps retaliatory economic measures as well.

The implications of the relaxation of marijuana restrictions in Canada are certainly serious, especially with respect to how the border is policed while a billion-dollar commerce traverses it each day. Yet the reputation of Canadians for personal reserve and matter- of-fact rectitude is unlikely in short order to go up in a cloudy blue haze of burning “B.C. bud.” Beer, in a near-infinity of local varieties, will probably persist as Canadians’ drug of choice.

Before the smoke had cleared on the pot front, there was severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. The outbreak in Ontario that began in March, presumably caused by a virus carried from Asia, turned hospitals into battle zones.

No sooner had the upheaval triggered by SARS abated than Canadians were hit with the detection on a northern Alberta ranch of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (“mad cow” to you and me), the first known incidence of the disease in an animal born in North America. The United States immediately closed its border to beef exports from Canada, and other nations (Mexico, Australia and Japan among them) did the same. U.S. Customs officials went to the extreme of temporarily halting trucks hauling Ontario garbage to landfills in Michigan out of fear that scraps of tainted meat could be among the refuse. Things just look bad when others find fault with the cleanliness of your waste.

Amid the clockwise commotion of the 24-hour news cycle, however, it is easy to overlook three truths about relations between the United States and Canada that remain robust.

First, Canada is a reliable ally. But “reliable” does not mean eternally submissive. The official stance of Canada before the Iraq war was that it would not join a coalition with the United States in the absence of a second United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force. Despite a furious series of diplomatic consultations spearheaded by Canadian representatives in New York, that resolution never developed, and Canada sat out this round.

Looking back a bit further, however, Canadian support for the initial stage of the Bush war on terrorism, the invasion of Afghanistan, was strong and concrete—though, in the usual Canadian fashion, quiet. Canada’s small defense establishment contributed elite special forces, airlift capacity, naval patrols and hundreds of light infantry troops to the U.S.-led military campaign in central Asia.

Canada also is preparing a contingent of 1,800 troops for service in Afghanistan with NATO in August. Moreover, in spite of its refusal to take the field in Iraq, Canada is front and center in the rebuilding effort in that war-torn nation. The federal government has earmarked $300 million (Canadian) to be funneled through the UN and private humanitarian organizations for the restoration of Iraqi infrastructure and social institutions.

Second, Canadians don’t hate Americans. Most Canadians, anyway, are positively friendly to Americans. They no more despise us, even considering the clash over Iraq policies, than we all hate the French—wine boycotts and renamed potatoes notwithstanding. Historical, cultural and economic ties between the two countries are too deep and too strong for occasional disagreements or a few phrases uttered in irritation to sunder the relationship forever.

Third, it’s safe to visit (and to eat in) Canada. While thousands- including the entire student body of one unfortunate high school- have been quarantined as a precaution, in Canada SARS is primarily a disease of hospital inpatients, the people who care for them and their families. As for mad cow, according to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, “information suggests that the risk to human health” from Canadian food “is very low.” To be more blunt, you would be hard-pressed to identify an international boundary that you could cross and incur less actual danger to your health or safety than the one separating the United States and Canada.

In the wake of the SARS waves, Toronto is hoping to lure back travelers before the lucrative summer season is over. For example, the Ontario Ministry of Tourism is arranging a huge “Concert for Toronto” on June 21, highlighting an “all-Canadian” lineup of musical acts, including Barenaked Ladies, Avril Lavigne, the Tragically Hip, Our Lady Peace and Sarah McLachlan.

If you go you will encounter, in what used to be a somewhat gray and Victorian sort of place, one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the planet, diverse ethnic and linguistic communities, each with its own flavor. And don’t worry: You can enjoy your trip without unreasonable fears. Simply look both ways before crossing the street and stay out of hospitals.

If you like beef, go ahead and order a steak.

Kevin J. Christiano is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame and is vice president of the American Council for Quebec Studies

June 8,2003

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