Canada-U.S. Relations (Poll)

"The two leaders, who appeared relaxed with one another and frequently made eye contact, also agreed to work together on the mad cow issue.

Canada-U.S. Relations (Poll)

"The two leaders, who appeared relaxed with one another and frequently made eye contact, also agreed to work together on the mad cow issue."

- From a CTV news report on the first Martin/Bush meeting on Jan. 13 in Monterey, Mexico

THE EXPECTATIONS have been set so low that just being together in the same room is now considered an accomplishment. Handshakes and smiles are taken as an indication of warming relations. And the use of given names qualifies as a major diplomatic breakthrough. When Paul MARTIN and George W. Bush sit down at the White House this week for their first extended summit, Canadians shouldn't hold their breath for significant trade deals, cross-border accords, or even mealy-mouthed memorandums of understanding. With the relationship between Canada and the United States plunging toward a historic nadir, the Prime Minister will be lucky to walk away with a nice photo and a souvenir pen.

No matter how the election-bound Liberals try to spin it, things have gone sour between old allies, and it has happened during their watch. It's more than the deep divisions over Iraq, or the Canadian public's palpable distaste for a Yalie cowboy and his conservative politics. Suddenly, there's a meanness to our day-to-day interactions. We harass American flag-waving school kids, and boo their national anthem at hockey games. Promises to stand "shoulder to shoulder" after the Sept. 11 attacks have been overshadowed by epithets like "moron" and "bastards." Symptoms of a declining friendship are everywhere you look.

Our unsolicited advice to Washington about the war on terror goes mostly unheeded, our small military contributions largely unappreciated. And far from our cherished self-image as the world's "helpful fixer," a sort of moral superpower, both Democrats and Republicans have come to view us as unhelpful nixers. Like the know-it-all neighbour who never misses a chance to bend your ear over the back fence or critique your yardwork, Canada has become the block bore. The "special" status that we once took for granted, able to withstand even the frankest disagreements, seems in doubt. Things between our countries are apparently getting worse all the time. And, the evidence suggests, the attitude problem is almost entirely our own.

An exclusive new Maclean's poll probing what Canadians and Americans really think of each other shows this new sense of animus is disproportionately centred north of the border. Sixty-eight per cent of Canadians say the U.S.'s global reputation has worsened over the last decade, while 38 per cent of us say we feel more negatively about America since Sept. 11 (the biggest reasons cited - the Iraq war and George W. Bush). Asked to pick the word that best describes our neighbours to the south, the No. 1 response was "arrogant," with "patriotic" (not necessarily a compliment) close behind. More of us say Americans are "dangerous" than "compassionate." And even though a majority would be willing to immediately commit Canadian troops to defend the U.S. in the event of another attack, only 44 per cent of us "strongly support" the idea.

On the flip side, most Americans remain indifferent to the insults and jibes floating across the border. Despite more than two years of high-level political conflict, and the best attempts of talk-radio foamers to lump Canada together with "socialist weenies" of Old Europe, 74 per cent of U.S. respondents say their opinion of our country remains unchanged. Twelve per cent say they think less of us, while an equal number say they like us more. A quarter of Americans think Canada's global reputation has improved, while 60 per cent say it has stayed the same. Their word of choice for their northern neighbours is "tolerant"; "compassionate" and "funny" are also high on the list. And an overwhelming majority would put their troops in harm's way to help us, with 60 per cent strongly supporting the idea.

"American foreign policy is driving negative reaction in Canada towards the U.S. government, its leadership, and perhaps even the people who live there," says Michael Marzolini, chairman of Pollara Inc., the national opinion research firm that conducted the international survey. A widespread concern over where the war on terror is leading us has created a historic rift between the two countries. "We've never seen results this negative," says Marzolini. "In the past, we've felt strongly about the American leadership, but it hasn't spilled over to the U.S. population." It's a countrywide phenomenon. British Columbians hold the most disparaging opinions of our neighbours. But residents of the Prairies - Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba - are just as likely as Quebecers to call Americans "arrogant." And more than two-thirds of Atlantic Canadians and Ontarians say they believe the global reputation of the U.S. has worsened. (The telephone poll of 1,269 Canadians and 1,000 Americans, conducted early this month, is considered accurate within +/-3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20.)

That's not to say there aren't Americans with similarly passionate opinions about Canada, and the current state of cross-border relations. A Maclean's poll published this winter detailing Canadian antipathy towards George W. Bush ("Hope you lose, eh," Feb. 9, 2004) elicited several thousand responses from U.S. residents, mostly outraged that their neighbours would even dare to have an opinion of the President, especially such a negative one. And although this new survey indicates the number of vocal critics of Canada remains relatively small, many Americans are convinced their ranks are growing. "Canadians have lost their manhood," says Fred Edwards, a 56-year-old construction supervisor from Tucson, Ariz. ("Socialized, homosexualized, feminized, gutless wimps," he specified in his original e-mail to the magazine.) Edwards, who has four children in the U.S. military - including a son who's just returned from Iraq and another son and a daughter preparing to ship out - is particularly incensed that Canada refused to join Bush's "coalition of the willing." "It's like being in a bar fight with your friends," he says. "You expect them to back you up."

Others focus on our perceived ingratitude for decades of comfortable living under the shelter of the American military umbrella. "Because we spent the money on the military, you don't have to carry an English/Russian or English/German dictionary," says Mike Rodgers, the 50-year-old pastor of a fundamentalist Baptist church in North Highlands, Calif. An air force veteran, Rodgers admits that Americans don't always stop to consider the views and sensibilities of other nations, but argues his country deserves at least as much thanks as criticism for taking on weighty global responsibilities. "Because we're so powerful and have such a free press, everybody around the world knows us - warts and all," he says. "But if there's a terrorist threat, it's always America that is expected to respond."

And while Canada's critics remain in the minority, what may be a concern is how many of them are conservative opinion-makers - the National Review, Fox News, and members of Bush-allied think-tanks like the American Enterprise Institute - with few compunctions about writing us off, à la Pat Buchanan, as a "Soviet Canuckistan." Bad news travels even faster in the Internet age, notes Steven Schlein, a Washington public relations consultant. Stories about Canadian slights and insults, whether it's an MP's epithet or protestors picking on a peewee hockey team from near Boston, are amplified by the echo chambers of talk radio and right-wing Web sites. (The corollary - good news takes the scenic route - is proven by the scant U.S. media coverage of the heroic fence-mending efforts of people in Fredericton, when the peewee team was lured back to Canada for a tournament in March.) "In conservative circles, people are extremely down on Canada," says Schlein. The former aide and press secretary to several Democratic senators says his own opinion, and that of many of his former colleagues, has also changed for the worse since Sept. 11. "I now rank you guys with France and Germany," he says. "We're no longer allies."

Truth be told, many Canadians take a certain pride in raising such American ire. If we can't always compete with the proprietors of the world's most powerful economy and military, we reserve the right to thumb our noses at them. It's a beery brand of nationalism - loud-mouthed flag-waving coupled with a Ned Flanders preachiness - that risks becoming as stale as a Sunday morning barroom. The type of patriotic fervour we once professed to loathe is now one of our trademarks, and co-opted to sell everything from Molson's suds, to Tim Hortons donuts, to Petro-Canada gasoline. Our obsessive need to poke and prod every aspect of our relationship with the U.S. infects our books, cinema, music and media - including, obviously, this very magazine. It's tempting to call it our greatest cultural rivalry - except that, technically speaking, the other party should know that you're competing with them.

The question is whether our delight in tweaking the U.S. is finally backfiring. We've always been able to ride out our poor relationships with past administrations, waiting for a more sympathetic White House. But with Sept. 11 still fresh in the American consciousness, and security the issue that trumps all others, how different would a Democratic president be? John Kerry, neck and neck with Bush in most opinion polls, has already said he plans to reduce the American presence in Iraq by shifting the burden to allies. Will Canadians suddenly be willing to wade deeper into the Middle East just because we prefer the person who is asking?

David T. Jones, a retired U.S. diplomat who served in Ottawa during the Clinton years, says the "benign American indifference" that has so long worked in Canada's favour is in danger of evaporating. "You can push and push and push, but eventually things will snap back," he says. The disproportionate military contributions that won us respect in Washington - the world wars, Korea - are fading into history, while our anti-Americanism is rising and almost reflexive. "The top dog is never loved," says Jones. "But what we want is respect and a recognition that we have the right to act in our own interests as we perceive them."

At the same time, the carefully nurtured national dream of a Canada that punches above its weight on the international stage is becoming increasingly hollow. Despite recent budget increases, our foreign aid spending still ranks closer to the bottom than the top of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries in terms of GNP. The federal government freely admits the Canadian military is stretched to the breaking point. When it comes to international peacekeeping, an idea we proudly claim as our own, the latest figures rank Canada 38th of 94 nations taking part in UN-led missions, lagging far behind members like Ghana, Ethiopia, Uruguay and Bangladesh. And the post-Cold War promise of new international institutions that would allow us to play a greater role has been eclipsed by America's hard turn towards unilateralism.

Paul Martin has pledged to make rebuilding Canada's ties to the United States one of his top priorities as prime minister. But some observers worry that it may already be too late. Christopher Sands, who tracks the relationship for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a D.C. think-tank, says the "golden age" of cross-border friendship ended over a decade ago as far as most of official Washington is concerned. Once mentioned in the same breath as Britain or Japan, he says, Canada is now lumped in with second- and third-tier allies such as Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands. "Prosperous, capitalist, democratic, but not able to contribute much," says Sands. "Which is OK as long as they don't engage in active obstruction of U.S. policies."

Convinced that we know Americans better than they know themselves, accustomed to sniping from the sidelines, we have failed to grasp the fundamental change the U.S. has undergone since Sept. 11. Yes, the population is split over Bush and the war in Iraq, says Sands, but it's largely a debate about tactics in the war on terror, not intent. Most Americans remain sincerely convinced that the aims of their government in the Middle East are noble, and their cause - preventing further terrorist attacks - is just. Cross-border criticism that strikes at the heart of those beliefs - like past polls showing that most Canadians believe U.S. policy is at least partially to blame for 9/11 - does get noticed, and remembered. "Americans are very generous as a people," says Sands. "But there comes a time when the debate shifts and the public starts talking about gratitude. That's the dark side of the American attitude."

The relationship between Canada and the United States is far more complex than how its leaders, or even its governments, get along. Millions of people traverse the border each month for work, vacations or simply to visit family. It's a peculiar kinship that has survived more than 200 years of ups and downs, boundary kerfuffles, trade disputes, even a war. But the findings of this Maclean's poll - sustained indifference on one side, and a growing animosity on the other - suggest even greater challenges ahead. We've long needed them more than they need us. Martin's summit with Bush is front-page news here at home. In an America that's grappling with foreign wars and domestic fears, its likely to be a brief at the back of the A-section. What Canadians may well ask themselves is how much further down the depth chart of friends they're willing to fall.

Taking the Pulse

38% of Canadians say their attitude toward the U.S. has worsened since 9/11. Of those, 45% say this is because of the war in Iraq or dislike of the Bush administration.

12% of Americans say their attitude toward Canada has worsened. Of those, 47% say this is because Canada didn't support the war or isn't committed to fighting terrorism.

49% of Canadians see the U.S. as arrogant, bullying or dangerous. 1% think Americans are funny or humorous.

45% of Americans see Canadians as tolerant or compassionate. 11% think we're funny or humorous.

68% of Canadians think America's global reputation has worsened over the past 10 years. Only 7% think it has improved.

9% per cent of Americans think Canada's reputation has worsened. 25% say it has improved.

If the U.S. was attacked by its enemies, 75% of Canadians support Canadian troops being deployed in America's defence. 18% oppose that.

If Canada was attacked, 84% of Americans support their troops being sent to help us. 12% are opposed.

See also CANADA AND THE UNITED STATES.

Maclean's May 3, 2004