Canadian Politics Are All About America

Par Anna Morgan

Élections 2006

Barely 18 months ago, Canadian party leaders were out campaigning for better health care policies, a cure for Quebec's nationalist aspirations and an end to government corruption scandals. But since the minority government put in place in June 2004 lost a no-confidence vote late last November, the politicians have been back out on the stump, preparing for a new election on Jan. 23. This time, though, running in the two coldest months of winter, they've been using that familiar demon -- the United States and all its evils -- as the fuel to heat Canadian voters to a frenzy.
There's no denying that Canadians are in an even more anti-American mood than usual, thanks to the Iraq war and the Bush administration's perceived arrogance. And politicians here are playing to that mood. In a blatant appeal for votes, candidates of every stripe, led by Prime Minister Paul Martin and his ruling Liberal Party, are taking aim at Washington, blasting it for taxing Canadian lumber imports, for failing to fight global warming, for lax gun-control laws, for dealing inappropriately with the war on terrorism. And all the while, they're studiously ignoring Canada's own homegrown issues.
America-bashing became such a central part of the election landscape last month that U.S. ambassador David H. Wilkins warned that Canadian-American relations could take a turn for the worse if party leaders didn't back off. But his words only prompted Canadian politicians to lash back with admonitions of their own. Even Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservatives, the party generally most sympathetic to the United States, declared: "I don't think foreign ambassadors should be expressing their views or intervening in an election."
In keeping with a long political tradition, the United States ignores Canada whenever possible. Nonetheless, the issues between the two countries just keep piling up. Leading the way is the softwood lumber dispute. Three years ago, the United States began imposing import duties on Canadian lumber after American producers complained that the Canadian government was all but subsidizing the lumber industry. Canada objected, and last August, arbitrators for the North American Free Trade Agreement decided in its favor. But Americans still have not fully complied with the NAFTA ruling to lift the duties, so Prime Minister Martin has made confronting Washington on this score a main issue of his campaign, even though lumber represents less than 3 percent of Canadian exports to the United States.
While American non-compliance with NAFTA may be a legitimate beef for Canadians, politicians have also been indulging in some inflated rhetoric on other fronts where Canada isn't on such solid ground. The specific attack to which Wilkins responded, for example, had to do with the Kyoto environmental accord. In welcoming a United Nations conference on global warming in Montreal last month, Martin criticized the United States for not signing the agreement and urged it to pay attention to the "global conscience."
In doing so, he conveniently neglected to mention that Canada, which is one of the accord's major promoters, so far hasn't complied with its emission reduction requirements. The United States, in fact, has done a better job in dealing with greenhouse gases. A U.S. Department of Energy report released in December noted that American emissions for 2004 were 16 percent higher than in 1990. A similar study prepared by Environment Canada reported that greenhouse gas emissions rose 24 percent here between 1990 and 2003. But in the current election environment, the prime minister knows that it is hot air that really counts.
The Liberal Party has been determined to divert attention from a corruption scandal that has left it weakened in every province. It is using its anti-American foreign policy as an election tool, continuously reminding Canadians that the Liberal government kept the country out of the Iraq war and the North American missile defense system. Some pundits say that Martin, with no ammunition against opposition candidates, has decided to run against George W. Bush.
The opposition has also played the America card. The Conservatives, who support deep tax cuts, Thatcheresque deregulation of the economy and a set of family values that could attract the vote of any evangelical minister, are sympathetic with Bush's foreign policies but vow never to mimic them. At the other end of the spectrum, the quasi-socialist New Democratic Party has candidates who are so anti-American that they sometimes sound like an undergraduate student forum, performing stunts such as conducting "citizens' weapons inspections" of American military bases in Washington state. The one thing all the candidates have in common is their strenuous assertions that they will not tolerate being bullied, even if they have to make up the bullying.
Although the government boasts about its non-cooperation with the Americans on Iraq, it is desperate to keep quiet its cooperation on the war on terrorism. Under the Liberals, Canada enacted Patriot Act-style legislation with the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001. Recently, it resisted calls to repeal provisions for increased police surveillance and far-reaching powers of arrest and detention. Federal authorities are currently holding five suspects under so-called security certificates, which allow non-Canadians to be held indefinitely if a judge is convinced they are a threat. These policies, however, have been kept low-key, for fear of an anti-government backlash in public opinion.
The problem is that silence on these issues during the campaign plays into the growing anti-American sentiment and may eventually hinder attempts to deal with terrorism. The best example of this is the case of Abdullah Khadr, the Canadian media's current cause celebre. Khadr is one of several Toronto-born sons of an Egyptian terrorist who was killed in a shootout with police in Pakistan. U.S. authorities suspect Abdullah of being a weapons supplier for al Qaeda and part of a group that planned to assassinate Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. On Dec. 2, he came back to Canada after 14 months in a Pakistani prison and was soon arrested on an extradition warrant, issued at the request of the United States, for conspiracy to murder Americans abroad.
Abdullah's 19-year-old brother, Omar, has also been in the news, as the youngest person held in Guantanamo Bay, for allegedly throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. Army medic in Afghanistan. The clan's mother has given interviews saying she detests Western values and that the only reason the family has returned to Canada is for the subsidized health care. One would think few families could be less popular with the liberal-minded Canadian public.
And yet in his current extradition battle, Abdullah is clearly winning in the court of public opinion, if not in the court of law. A number of prominent columnists and CBC News are questioning whether Canada should cooperate with the U.S. government in this or any other terrorism case.
Politicians here know that Canadians love to read, talk and debate about U.S. transgressions. Newspaper articles point to ethnic profiling at airports and long border waits as evidence that the war on terrorism is a sham, and that Americans are simply looking for excuses to harass Canadians for the country's multicultural society. But just as it chooses to ignore weaknesses in Canada's environmental policy, the public is also disinclined to take seriously the country's problems with terrorism. Those problems may not be as exaggerated as some Americans think they are -- just recently Montana's Sen. Conrad Burns reiterated, then retracted, the popular myth that the 9/11 hijackers got into the United States through Canada -- but they are certainly real.
The so-called millennium bomber, Ahmed Ressam, who planned to bomb Los Angeles airport on New Year's Eve 2000, did come from Canada. In another notorious case, Mohammed Zeki Mahjoub was arrested in Toronto after being accused of belonging to a militant group with ties to an Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization. Though he denied those links, Mahjoub admitted he worked closely with Osama bin Laden himself during his years in Sudan. The judge at Mahjoub's first hearing quoted from a report issued by the Canadian Security Intelligence Services that "there are more terrorist cells operating in Canada than in any other country outside the Middle East."
Worry about alienating key constituencies in a hairline election has silenced politicians here on these important issues. But Canada-U.S. relations could reach a turning point if they're not addressed. Over the past five years, Canada has stopped extraditing people to the United States if they face the death penalty. The increasing popularity of the notion that international terrorism suspects also should not be extradited have led to some serious concerns about the heavily trafficked border.
It's not just that Canada is starting to look like a safe haven for America's Most Wanted; it's that America may be starting to view Canada as a less-than-benign neighbor. U.S. Customs and Immigration this year imposed passport requirements on visiting Canadians for the first time, and there is talk of fingerprinting at the border as well. At some point, the truck traffic that carries up to 70 percent of Canadian exports south will start to bog down in security inspections. That's when Canadians' anti-American bark will really start to bite.
In this electoral season, the public is looking for bellicose rhetoric, but Canada's security cries out for sober management. Whoever is elected will have to work publicly with the United States, not just against it, to reduce anti-American sentiment while addressing the problem of terrorism and cross-border control. If the real need for cooperation with Canada's southern neighbor can't temper the public's demand for criticism, the nation will be in for some stormy weather in the next few years.
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Anna Morgan is a freelance journalist and author in Canada.

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