Canada and the United States

"The Americans are our best friends whether we like it or not." This statement, uttered in the House of Commons by  Robert Thompson, the leader of the Social Credit Party early in the 1960s, perhaps best captures the essence of Canada's complex relationship with its nearest neighbour.



Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump in London, United Kingdom. December 3, 2019. 

Photo: Adam Scotti (PMO)

The American Revolution and United Empire Loyalists

When the United Empire Loyalists fled the vengeance of the winning side in the American Revolution (1775 – 83) and came to the British colonies north of the line, they brought with them a distaste for what they saw as excesses of democracy, even mobocracy, that had dispossessed them.

At the same time, they brought with them a host of American attitudes and ideals. For example, the Loyalists did not want any state religion and they sought public education. Their political heirs could design a Confederation bargain that included an appointed Senate to act as a check on the democratic excesses of the elected House of Commons. But the British North America Act, 1867, would also include a concept of federalism that, while different from the model adopted in the United States Constitution, bore strong affinities to it.

Reciprocity Between Canada and the United States

American ideas, attitudes, models and failures shaped the very nature of Canada. So, too, did a combination of fear and profit. Reciprocity, a free trade agreement between the United States and Canada, was in effect from 1854 to 1866. The first treaty, signed in 1854, had been demanded by merchants frightened by the loss of previously assured markets in the United Kingdom. Although controversial, reciprocity was popularly believed to have created an economic boom with the access it gave the British North Americans to the great market to the south.

American Civil War and Canada

When the Civil War, fought between the northern (Union) states and the southern (Confederate) states, racked the American Republic from 1861 to 1865 and increased tension between the British and American governments, the 1854 treaty was a casualty (see American Civil War and Canada). Indeed, so great was the ill-feeling between the governments that many in Canada feared that the soon-to-be victorious North might try to reunite its people by staging an invasion of Canada. Fenian incursions and plots lent credence to the rumours.

The result of such factors was increased pressure in the British provinces to unite in the Dominion of Canada. In that way, defence might be easier to manage (if still fundamentally hopeless), and the economies of the colonies might be enhanced in a wider market. American pressures contributed to a hurried absorption of Manitoba into Confederation in 1870 (see also Red River Rebellion).

Canada now existed as a separate North American colony-nation, but the attractions of the United States did not wane. Reciprocity remained a sought-after goal. Conservative prime minister Sir John A.Macdonald craved it just as fervently as the Liberal Alexander Mackenzie.

Did you know? Sir John A. Macdonald’s last great campaign in 1891, an election he won on the cry, "A British subject I was born, a British subject I will die," is the stuff of history books and legend. Almost forgotten is that Macdonald, the creator of the National Policy of high tariff protection that had produced singularly few economic benefits since its implementation in 1879, had sought a trade agreement with the Americans just before the election. It was only when he was rebuffed once more that the Old Chief wrapped himself in the bloody shirt and campaign against the Yankees.

Twenty years later, in 1911, Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier struck a deal with the United States for reciprocity in natural products, but Canada, now industrialized to an extent undreamed of in 1891, rejected both the Liberal leader and reciprocity. In 1911, Sir Robert Borden led the opposition to the Reciprocity Agreement with a campaign that called for "No Truck or Trade with the Yankee." In so doing, he forced a general election and won.

The First World War: A Changing Relationship between Canada and the United States

A half dozen years later, the necessities of the First World War (WWI) (1914-18) forced Prime Minister Borden to seek economic assistance from President Woodrow Wilson's government. Ironically, his most telling argument with the president was that Canada was America’s best friend. The argument worked, and the United States extended to Canada assistance it was very wary about giving to its other allies.

Most Americans knew little about Canada. But that did not matter. It was understood that Canadians, while still subservient to the kings of England, were much the same as Americans. Of course, despite the subtle shadings that differentiated the two countries, it was true that there were many similarities between Canadians (English Canadians, most notably) and Americans.

Canada was considered a safe place for Americans to invest. During and after WWI, large American corporations quickly and effortlessly displaced the United Kingdom as the major source of foreign investment in Canada. Many corporations also believed that Canadian consumers were the same, if a little less wealthy, than Americans. They had similar cultural reference points because they watched the same movies and read the same magazines as Americans.

Canadian Migration to the United States

For many Canadians, the major attractive force of the United States was greater opportunity. Thanks to the high tariff that protected Canadian manufacturers, the cost of living was always higher in Canada than in the United States. Tens of thousands of Canadians immigrated to the United States each decade in search of greater opportunity for themselves and their children. From the mid-19th century to around 1930, over 900 000 francophone Québecois emigrated to the United States (see  Franco-Americans).

Many population groups, including Black people, Jews and "foreigners" faced prejudice and discrimination, but there was also a willingness in the United States to accept the idea that people could get ahead through their own talents and hard work. Sometimes that opportunity seemed to be lacking in Canada, where the old "family compact" seemed to retain a stranglehold on the economy and social status and only those of British origin had any claim to prestige and power.

The Canadian climate was worse, an inevitable result of geography, the land generally less fertile and the growing season shorter. People had to pay a price to be and remain Canadian. But some people chose Canada over America for various reasons, including loyalty to Crown and Empire, but also because Canada had escaped the excesses of America and Americanism.

The Second World War

This was particularly evident once the United States rose to globalism and superpower status during and after the Second World War (WWII) (1939-45) The idealism of the United States - demonstrated, for example, in the Lend-Lease Act that had given the Allies the munitions and supplies to win WWII and the Marshall Plan that had helped so greatly to reconstruct Europe after that war - seemed to have been replaced by a military-industrial complex that pursued unwinnable wars for geopolitical ends.

The Vietnam War and Canada

The Vietnam War was the classic example, a war so dreadful in its effects on the American polity that draft dodgers and military deserters by the thousands sought and found sanctuary in Canada, along with thousands of ordinary American men and women. For the first time, the flow of immigration from the south to the north exceeded that of Canada to the United States. Canada's smallness and what many Americans perceived as innocence had become virtues as the United States seemingly lost its way.

Many of those American immigrants in the late 1960s, however, misunderstood their new home, something that was strikingly apparent when the Trudeau government implemented the War Measures Act in October 1970 (see October Crisis; Front de Libération du Québec; Quiet Revolution; Francophone Nationalism in Quebec). Recent arrivals from the United States could not understand how it was that Trudeau received overwhelming public support in English Canada for the suspension of civil liberties and the employment of the armed forces in the streets of Montreal and Ottawa. In the United States, they said, the people would have been out in the streets in protest while in Canada the only rallies were those in support of the government.

The Vietnam War provided opportunities for Canadian business, the darker side of the new Canadian prosperity that marked the 1960s and after. The Defence Production Sharing Agreement (DPSA), negotiated by John Diefenbaker's government in 1958, created a quasi free trade agreement in defence materials in an attempt to decrease the trade imbalances that Canada faced because of its military purchases in the United States. Bombs and bandages, gunsights and grenades, produced in Canada, were used in the war zone.

To some Canadians, the economic integration with the United States symbolized by the DPSA prevented Canada from pursuing an independent foreign policy. That there was economic integration seemed undeniable. Since the signing of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1947 and subsequent international conferences, tariffs between Canada and the United States had been lowered dramatically. American investment in Canada, just 23 per cent of the total in 1914, had risen to 60 per cent in 1939, 70 per cent in 1945, 76 per cent in 1955, 81 per cent in 1967 and 82 per cent in 1982; by 1986 it had fallen to 50 per cent. Whole sectors of Canada's economy were owned and controlled in the United States, and the possibility of Canadians determining their own destiny seemed to be slipping away.

The 1960s and 1970s witnessed a resurgence of Canadian nationalism,stronger in central Canada than the east or west, the creation of such organizations as the Committee for an Independent Canada, and efforts by political figures such as Liberal Finance Minister Walter Gordon (1963-65) to attempt to control foreign investment. The Trudeau government's establishment of the Foreign Investment Review Agency (FIRA) in 1973, even if it turned out to be a paper tiger, was one legislative result of the new nationalism. While the FIRA drew the ire of American investors and the United States government, its disappearance under Brian Mulroney's government was not much lamented.

Canada and the Free Trade Agreement

Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives moved toward a Free Trade agreement with the United States in 1985. Tariffs, as has been noted, were generally low between the two countries, but nontariff barriers (such as those that favour the price of domestic wines over California vintages) were prevalent, subsidies were employed by both to protect weak sectors of their economies and a host of other issues divided the nations. Although there was, according to opinion polls from 1985 to 1987, substantial although declining support for free trade, there was no doubt that certain sectors might suffer.

Even after the agreement was signed in October 1987, questions continued. Could the weak cultural industries of Canada survive an open border? Would agriculture sectors such as Ontario and British Columbia fruit survive? How many industrial jobs might be lost? The answers were unclear, but when they became evident then the public's support might increase or decline. The one certainty was that free trade would eliminate a psychological border that had helped to keep Canadians safe in the belief that they were different from their southern cousins (see Cultural Policy).

Nationalists argued that Canada's economic sovereignty had been severely compromised by the flow of American capital to the north. Political sovereignty was similarly threatened by the desire of the Canadian government and people to follow the American lead in the world. Vietnam was the exception that proved the rule, for if Canada did not send troops to the Americans' war, it was only because the nation was represented there on the International Commission for Control and Supervision set up by the Geneva Agreements of 1954. But in NATO and in NORAD Canada did its duty, dragging its feet on occasion, but a good ally all the same.

When, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, the Diefenbaker government was slow in bringing the Canadian component of NORAD to alert status, the minister of national defence and the military acted anyway, and the next year American intervention helped to topple Diefenbaker's divided Conservative government. Given geography, Canada has no option but to do its share in defence of North America and the United States heartland; abroad, the constellation of forces seemingly requires that we carry our (small) share of the load.

The United States and Canadian Territorial Sovereignty

Still, Canadian sovereignty over the nation's territory was secure. Or was it? The United States had never recognized Canada's sovereignty over the arctic waterways and islands, and during the Second World War, American military operations in the North, undertaken with the full consent of Ottawa, had blossomed to such an extent that the federal government paid in full for every installation to ensure that the Americans would depart after 1945 (see Arctic Sovereignty).

The Cold War, however, had brought the United States military back to the Arctic, and there were upsetting incidents when Canadian parliamentarians had to secure permission from the Pentagon before being allowed to visit DEW Line stations. The development of American and Soviet nuclear submarines capable of operating under arctic ice also called Canadian sovereignty in the north into question, as did American insistence in 1968 and 1985 on sending a giant oil tanker and a United States Coast Guard vessel through the Northwest Passage without Canada's consent.

Even if it had the will to act against those who violated Canadian territory with impunity, Canada lacked the military capacity in the Arctic to do anything. Beyond occasional surveillance flights and token military forces at scattered locations, Canadian occupation of the North, other than the Inuit and Dene population and oil drillers, was strictly limited.

Differences and Similarities between Canada and the United States

Canadians like to insist on the differences between the two countries. Gun control laws and the public health-care system help to set Canada apart from its neighbour. In 2003 the Canadian refusal to join the United States in going to war in Iraq suggested diverging approaches toward international affairs.

The differences seemed all the more pronounced after Donald Trump became president of the United States in 2017 (see Canadian - American Relations). He paraded a style starkly at odds with that of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a man the Washington Post labelled “the anti-Trump.” After Canada accepted more than 40,000 refugees from Syria, Trump’s administration tried to stop Muslims from entering the United States (see Canadian Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis). The Canadian government pursued a carbon tax, while Trump claimed that climate change was a Chinese hoax. The prime minister declared himself a feminist and an internationalist, in contrast with the president who frequently disparaged women and American allies in his public comments. Yet such a comparison of president and prime minister, common in the media, ignores the many values and interests that Canadians and Americans share.

The similarities outweigh the differences. Canada and the United States are both affluent western democracies whose citizens share common values. The English language links most Canadians to Americans and to American popular culture. The two economies are closely intertwined, meaning that Canadian prosperity depends heavily on a successful American economy. The great Canadian challenge is to balance the benefits of a relationship with the United States with the necessity to maintain Canada's identity and sovereignty.


Further Reading

  • Norman Hillmer and Philippe Lagassé, eds., Justin Trudeau and Canadian Foreign Policy (2018)

    Stephen Azzi, Reconcilable Differences: A History of Canada–US Relations (2015)

    Norman Hillmer and J.L. Granatstein, For Better or for Worse: Canada and the United States into the Twenty-First Century (2007)

    Reg Stuart,Dispersed Relations: Americans and Canadians in Upper North America (2007).