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Hurricane Hillary stirs up Ottawa

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Hurricane Hillary blew into Canada last week and tipped, temporarily, Stephen Harper's house off its social conservative foundation.

It was not just another day in the long and often tumultuous Canada-U.S. relationship. In a rare reversal of roles, it was the U.S. who tilted left while Canada leaned right.

A veteran of both U.S. and international politics, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says what she means and means what she says. Her comments on the Arctic, Afghanistan and maternal and child health in the Third World were deliberate -- and made with the full knowledge and support of President Barack Obama.

"She goes about her business with purpose and she gets things done," David Biette, director of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars told The Canadian Press. "Canadians shouldn't take it personally. It's not about you. It's about the issue. Canada isn't going to be dealt a break just because of a perceived special relationship. She has some legitimate concerns and she raised them. That's the kind of secretary of state she is."

The extent of Obama's trust of Clinton can be measured by the fact he gave her complete control over hiring at the State Department, her primary demand after he offered her the cabinet post last year. She and the president have a 45-minute, one-on-one meeting every Thursday.

However, unlike many previous Canadian-American clashes when the ideological shoes were on the other feet, so to speak, last week's never became personal. Clinton merely stated her government's positions and let the chips fall.

She left a summit of Arctic coastal countries Monday and refused to attend its closing news conference after criticizing Canada for excluding Sweden, Finland and Iceland and the representatives of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic.

"Significant international discussions on Arctic issues should include those who have legitimate interests in the region," she said. "We need all hands on deck because there is a huge amount to do and not much time to do it... The melting of sea ice, glaciers and permafrost will affect people and ecosystems around the world. And I hope the Arctic will always showcase our ability to work together, not create new divisions."

On Tuesday, with Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon sitting beside her, she left no doubt the Harper Conservatives' G8 initiative on maternal and child health is a non-starter as much with the U.S. as it is with Britain.

"You cannot have maternal health without reproductive health and reproductive health includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortions. This is an issue of great concern to me and my government," she said. "If you are concerned about abortion, then women should have access to family planning. It is perfectly legitimate for people to hold their own personal views based on conscience, religion or any other basis. But I've always believed that the government should not intervene in decisions of such intimacy."

She was equally forthright on Canada's planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you we're happy about it because... that wouldn't be telling you the truth. We'd love to have Canada stay in this fight with us. But again, your know, you've got your own considerations and we respect that."

These issues are only the tip of the iceberg of differences between Obama and Harper, according to columnist Lawrence Martin, a former Washington correspondent and author of The Presidents and the Prime Ministers.

"They differ on attitudes towards the Middle East and Muslims," Martin wrote in The Globe and Mail Monday. "On its effort to relocate Guantanamo inmates, the White House was annoyed that it received no help from Ottawa. On nuclear disarmament, an Obama priority, the U.S. has heard little but silence from Canada. On a broad range of social issues, the differences are deep."

It's taken a year, but the yawning chasm between the Harper Conservatives and the Obama Democrats is now out in the open. And when it comes to choosing between their small but vital social conservative base and Washington, the Harperites' answer is clear and immediate.

At his first opportunity, Harper's foreign affairs minister nailed the Conservatives' house back on its social conservative footings. The government, Cannon said on CTV's Question Period, has "closed the door on the abortion part" and will move ahead on its "signature initiative, which is extremely important in terms of saving and helping young children as well as mothers.

"I think Mrs. Clinton expressed not her government's position; she expressed her personal point of view."

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political commentator

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 7, 2010 A12

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