Obama's helpful guide to Canada


TORONTO – Sometimes, the depth of a friendship can be gauged with a silly question.

The Canadian polling firm Angus Reid tried to do exactly that with recent surveys on both sides of the 49th parallel. It asked Canadians and Americans which citizens in the world would be most willing to rescue them from a deserted island. Canadians picked Americans as their number one choice. Americans chose Canadians.

Despite a long history of policy differences and trade disputes, it seems Americans and Canadians trust no one more than each other. When all is said and done, it’s perhaps this underlying trust that above all has U.S. President Barack Obama landing in Ottawa Feb. 19 for his first foreign trip.

The issues for discussion are potentially divisive. On energy, Obama administration officials have criticized “dirty oil” from Alberta’s tar sands, most of which is exported to the U.S. On Afghanistan, Obama’s plan for a 17,000-troop increase clashes with Canada’s decision to withdraw its soldiers in 2011. And on the economy, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will push for guarantees that American protectionist tendencies don’t restrict free trade during the recession.

But few observers expect major announcements to emerge from what essentially will be a six-hour neighborly visit. There will be the obligatory meetings with the prime minister and the leader of the official opposition, Michael Ignatieff, but not much else. Not even a speech. A press conference — with four questions allowed — will be the only chance for Canadians to glimpse Obama’s rhetorical magic.

Canadians had hoped for more. But many recognize the visit as a practice run for a newly minted president and his entourage, preparation for foreign forays where the stakes are far higher. It’s like a neighbor asking to try out a new pair of skates in our backyard ice rink before heading out to the big arena. If he stumbles, he knows he’s in friendly hands. It harks back to that underlying trust.

What the trip is not is some sort of bow to tradition. The idea that Canada has long been the first stop for presidents is more myth than reality. American presidents didn’t even visit until 1923, when William Harding decided to see how his northern neighbors lived. Ten years passed before Franklin D. Roosevelt became the second president to come calling.

Before Obama, only three of the last seven presidents made their first foreign trip to Canada. Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford never even bothered to visit while they were in office. George W. Bush went to Mexico — a move Canada’s chattering class widely perceived as a snub — and Richard Nixon traveled to 19 countries and spent three years in office before heading north.

Many will be watching how Obama gets along with Harper, a fiercely partisan conservative politician bereft of charisma. The list of presidents and prime ministers who didn’t get along includes John Kennedy and John Diefenbaker and Nixon and Pierre Trudeau. (When Trudeau learned Nixon had called him an “asshole,” he replied, “I’ve been called worse things by better people.”)

With this in mind, Mr. President, here are a few tips for a successful visit:

Don’t sing: Canadians still shudder every time they hear, “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” It recalls images of former prime minister Brian Mulroney hand-in-hand with Ronald Reagan in Quebec City belting out the maudlin classic. The camaraderie was much too close for comfort for many Canadians.

Say something in French: Canada, as you know, is an officially bilingual country. Something as simple as “Bonjour, mes amis,” will send most French-speaking nationalists swooning in Quebec, even those who want the province to become an independent country. If you don’t say something in French, rest assured some Quebec nationalists will conjure up reasons to be offended.

Whatever you say in French, don’t say, “Vive le Quebec libre”: The last visiting dignitary to shout, “Long live a free Quebec,” was the late French president Charles de Gaulle, who made the pronouncement from a balcony in Montreal in 1967. It resulted in an official rebuke by Prime Minister Lester Pearson. Since then, Canadian politicians get nervous if a visiting official even looks at a balcony.

Say something about our geography: Canadians like to be reminded that they live in a vast, rugged and beautiful country.

If you’re searching for something to say about our geography, don’t ask our governor general: As the Queen’s representative in Canada, Michaelle Jean is our acting head of state, the person who will be greeting you when you arrive at the airport. While giving a geography lesson to schoolchildren recently, she mistakenly identified where the Rocky Mountains are.

When talking exports, mention the ones Canadians are most proud of: Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis, Martin Short, John Candy, Michael J. Fox, Rich Little, Dan Aykroyd and Dave Thomas, to name just a few. We make America laugh.


More GlobalPost dispatches from Canada:

"Buy American" doesn't play well in Canada

The dark side

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