Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Promising first visit

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ANYONE who watched President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper at their press conference Thursday would be hard pressed to see anything other than good things in it.

To be sure, it might be that President Obama and Prime Minister Harper were simply putting on a show, but their relaxed, mutually respectful and dignified conduct signalled otherwise -- it appeared that their first meeting might very well result in the "personal" relationship that was the principal goal of the whirlwind visit to Ottawa.

For Canadians smitten by President Obama -- and that would be most of them -- there was much to keep the love growing. His first foreign trip, however brief, was to Canada and he made a point of saying so. His laugh-filled banter with Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean on arrival was unaffected, so much so that she gave him a slap on the back at one point. And his declaration that "I love this country... We could not have a better friend and ally" must have swelled the hearts of all Canadians who sometimes wonder if America knows or really cares that they exist.

But Mr. Obama impressed with more than salutations and expected, but nevertheless appreciated, gratitude for Canadian sacrifices and "extraordinary valour" in Afghanistan.

More encouraging was that he knew the big picture, and also the little ones -- that the Canadian Forces' toll was 108 and, in response to an unrelated question, that Canada's largest foreign aid commitment is to Afghanistan.

As for Mr. Harper, he looked and acted as polished as the "great orator" himself, fielding questions with aplomb, in detail, and in both official languages. He was as fulsome in his answers as was the president, and for the most part spoke with fewer pauses. He wasn't the least bit intimidated, or at least he didn't show it, and often spoke directly to the U.S. press contingent, telling it that there are in the U.S. mistaken views of Canada's commitment, not just to the war on terror, but to the need to help protect America's security because so doing is the only way to protect Canada's. He also made it clear that while President Obama has pledged that America will take a lead role on climate change, that policy has yet to be written, and that it has been the absence of a U.S. policy in the face of our highly integrated economies that has bedevilled Canadian efforts to forge one for decades.

In fact, President Obama at times had to play catch-up, as after Mr. Harper declared that the "safest prediction in the world" is that our two nations will be closer friends in four years than they are today. "The prime minister is right," Mr. Obama concurred.

The two leaders' apparent ease with one another was a useful reminder that the relationship between Canada and the United States has everything to do with co-operatively pursuing our shared advantages and very little to do with partisanship.

In the past eight years, many Canadians might have forgotten just how dependent they are on America for trade and protection. George W. Bush, after all, never asked much of Canada, even gave us a few things, tolerated our slights and we never had to worry about protectionism as we have since Mr. Obama arrived on the scene -- or environmentalism, for that matter.

In addition, Canadians didn't much respect Mr. Bush and so it became easy to confuse the ease with which we could disrespect the man with the impossibility of disrespecting what he represented -- our security and well being.

Prime Minister Harper, on the other hand, never seemed to lose sight of the essential facts; that while Canada is sovereign and politically independent of the United States, it also, perhaps paradoxically, is utterly dependent on it economically and militarily, and so the relationship must be nurtured.

Mr. Harper was scorned by many Canadians as a too-ready-aye-ready Bushie for ideological reasons, but just as likely he was simply being a responsible Canadian prime minister who knows where the nation's bread is buttered. Certainly his demeanour and language in the public portion of his meetings with President Obama was at least as respectful as it had been with Mr. Bush. And that is at it should be.

In fact, that is as it must be. Friendship is all well and good, but the relationship between Canada and the United States is an unequal one in every way but morally. And while Mr. Obama may love Canada as he professes, he is the big brother and he will impose his will on the junior partner out of duty to serve the self-interest of his fellow Americans.

He has already made that clear; that while he is not keen on protectionism, he doesn't seem too keen on favouritism, either; while he appreciates access to Canadian fossil fuels, that doesn't mean he will tolerate its dirty production any more than he will tolerate the dirty production of energy from coal in the United States.

President Obama's determination to continue the war on terror in Afghanistan, to get tough on climate change and force the world to stimulate itself back into economic health all could be cause for concern in Canada. But as he said in an interview earlier this week about protectionism, Canadians shouldn't be "too concerned" about "Buy America." He made it clear that he is looking for more help in Afghanistan but that help could come in the form of development. Climate change must be addressed, but by India and China, too -- as both Mr. Bush and Mr. Harper asserted to jeers. Continentally, he and Mr. Harper pledged to work together to save the planet, while on the NAFTA front he repeated his concerns that environment and labour agreements should not be side agreements, which is understood to be code for cracking down on Mexico.

What Canadians should take from the presidential visit is that our interests remain common interests that we should pursue to our common good.

 

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 20, 2009 A10

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