Trudeau and Obama, enjoy it while you can

Living close to the United States is like "sleeping with an elephant".

    When the US and Canada have friendly, personal ties, their countries seem more able to resolve problems [Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP]
    When the US and Canada have friendly, personal ties, their countries seem more able to resolve problems [Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP]

    Living close to the United States is like "sleeping with an elephant", said a famous Canadian politician.

    "No matter how friendly and even tempered is the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt."

    That pithy metaphor is typical of Canada-US relations in so many ways. Almost every Canadian has probably heard it, and probably quoted it to someone. Americans? Some might take offence, some might laugh, but very, very few will have heard it before.

    That's despite the fact it was said in 1969 in Washington DC. To the US National Press Club no less.

    And the speaker, none other than Prime Minister Pierre Eliot Trudeau, father of the current head of government in Canada Justin Trudeau.

    It's beyond doubt that phrase and other advice on how to handle the sleeping elephant is very much on the mind of Trudeau fils during the pomp, ceremony and backroom talks of his state visit to the US capital, the first by a Canadian prime minister in nearly 20 years.

    For Justin Trudeau has not shied away from the pachyderm in his particular room. And I'm not talking about the US here. It's that he's officially part of a dynasty in Canada. His much-heralded surname helped propel him into politics. And he's unabashed when he talks about the years of advice and counsel from his father, arguably Canada's most transformative leader of contemporary times.

    No doubt Trudeau pere would have told his son about the importance of personal relations between Canadian prime ministers and US presidents, as a way of mitigating those elephantine twitches and grunts he referred back in 1969.

    When the two have friendly, personal ties, their countries seem more able to resolve problems and expand areas of mutual interest. When they don't, things tend to fester and two nations that are quite literally closer and more integrated than any others can seem like petulant siblings at the breakfast table.

    Just ask Harper

    Just ask Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau's predecessor in Ottawa. He was quite close to former President George W Bush, who apparently called him "Harper" by way of an affectionate nickname. The two men both loved the oil industry and Harper pushed hard for Canada to get more access for tar sands crude oil to US refineries and markets.

    But under Barack Obama, the mood was sour from the start. For one thing, Harper's staff was accused of leaking information about the Obama campaign to the US media during the Democratic presidential primaries in 2008. For another, Harper was a right-winger, much closer in spirit to Republican challenger John McCain than Obama. 

    For nearly seven years, Harper's government tried to convince Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline from those northern tar sands to the US Gulf Coast. He failed, and many believe it was the disdain in the relationship between the two men that tipped the balance against a pipeline that might otherwise have had a fighting chance of approval. It didn't help that Harper at times sounded like a climate-change denier, while Obama saw greenhouse gas reductions as a legacy issue for his presidency. But close friends can disagree on many things, while working together to each other's benefit. That didn't happen.

    Yet hard economic reality can overcome frosty personal ties. As each other's largest trading partners, Canada and the US aren't about to diminish the $760bn that they do in business each year because two leaders dislike each other. That's more than $1.4m dollars a minute in goods, services and investment. The two countries enjoy free trade and visa free personal travel for citizens. They work closely together on national security, air defence of the North American continent, protection of the Great Lakes freshwater supplies, international diplomacy, air pollution and dozens of other files.

    'Feel the love'

    Canada famously played host to tens of thousands of stranded airline passengers when commercial jet traffic to the US was grounded for several days after the attacks after the attacks of September 11, 2001. We even share humanitarian workers and snow plough crews when we're hit with nasty weather or catastrophic storms.

    All those sweet spots are very much to the fore now that Justin Trudeau is in charge in Ottawa and Barack Obama spends his last months in Washington DC. The elephant is awake and he's smiling at us. And we're smiling back, beaming, happy to be noticed and comforted by the benevolence in its gaze.

    Never mind that Canada just pulled its fighter jets out of the anti-ISIL coalition in Iraq and Syria. Or that our lumberjacks have looming trade disputes with the US that could get nasty. Or even that (as we see it) overly-strict US border security costs our exporters $20bn a year. We're working such issues. 

    Feel the love and bask in its glow. Because you never know when it's going to change. And Justin Trudeau hasn't exactly been nice about a man who's looking increasingly likely to have a shot at replacing Obama in the White House.

    His name is Donald J Trump.

    But he's not invited to the current festivities in Washington. As far as Canada is concerned, we'll live with the elephant we have. For now. And get ready for some more twitching and grunting after the US elections, just in case.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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