A review of In Roosevelt’s Bright Shadow: Presidential Addresses about Canada from Taft to Obama in Honour of FDR’s 1938 Speech at Queen’s University, edited by Arthur Milnes, and At Home and Abroad: The Canada-U.S. Relationship and Canada’s Place in the World, by Patrick Lennox

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Excerpted from The Literary Review of Canada April 2010 Review of P. Lennox and A. Milne

The back cover of In Roosevelt’s Bright Shadow displays a picture of Peter Milliken, Speaker of the House of Commons, presenting a special prepublication copy of the same book to President Barack Obama in the splendidly restored Parliamentary Library when he visited Ottawa last year. Obama then received a second copy later that day from M.P. Bob Rae.

The book contains the speeches given by American presidents in Canada and Canadian prime ministers in the United States, and the careful editing by journalist-scholar Arthur Milnes gives readers the continuum of the relationship for the last century. Published by McGill-Queen’s University Press (2009) in honour of Franklin Roosevelt’s 1938 Speech at Queen’s University, it is another addition to the Centre for the Study of Democracy’s Library of Political Leadership. In its 227 pages are contained a century’s essence of Canadian-American relations, seen through the official words of our leaders. Patterns emerge.

From the American side, securing their homeland has always been the dominant and abiding concern. Until the Civil War gave them a muscular and tested military, Canada, as adjunct of the British Empire, was viewed as a potential threat. Contingency plans for a Canadian invasion were kept on file until early in the 20th century.  Roosevelt’s unequivocal “assurance that the people of the United States will not stand idly by if domination by Canadian soil is threatened by any other Empire” set the course for an enduring partnership. It begins with the Ogdensburg Agreement of 1940 that created the binational Permanent Joint Board of Defence and then the 1941 Hyde Park Agreement coordinating economic resources. In the years after the war, most of the special joint economic agencies were, in Truman’s words, “quietly disbanded with a minimum of disturbance” – an early example of the relationship’s practical ‘functionalism’.

But the Soviet threat, especially after its acquisition of the atomic bomb and the capacity to deliver it by plane or missile, obliged a closer security cooperation. Canada became the potential new ‘front-line’. For mutually advantageous reasons we created a binational ‘umbrella’ in NORAD. Technological developments resulted in evolving iterations under this mutual defence pact -– BOMARC and the DEW line, to the decisions to accept the cruise missile. Later, to the surprise of both the Americans, and many senior officials, including our then just-named U.S. ambassador, Frank McKenna, and Chief of Defence Staff, Rick Hillier, we decided not to participate in ballistic missile defence.

Participating in collective security through the Atlantic community (NATO) as well as the United Nations, was not nearly as domestically contentious. It also fit comfortably with Canadian sensibilities and our preference for multilateralism. 

A second theme in the presidential speeches is the ongoing encouragement for Canada to become more involved in the Americas, first as an observer in the Organization of American States and later as a full member. Americans have always had a natural concern about their ‘backyard’ even before the 1823 Monroe doctrine asserted that further colonization of the western hemisphere was off-limits. Notwithstanding our longstanding trade and commercial relationship in the Caribbean or the missionary presence in Haiti, Canadian governments, until Brian Mulroney, were surprisingly slow to appreciate the importance of presence and engagement in the region, especially Mexico, in terms of the American relationship.

A third subject is the American delight in the big project, especially the big engineering project. Thus the continuing references to the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Alaska Highway, the Trans-Canada pipeline or the Columbia River project. As the celebrated Chicago architect Daniel Burnham put it a century ago, “Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Therein lies a lesson for Canadian diplomacy. Presidents have scant interest in what George W. Bush described as ‘small ball’. Condoleezza Rice complained of the Canadian tendency to bring up the ‘condominium issues’ – a hassle at a port of entry or a dispute around wheat or potatoes – rather than to lead with the big picture perspective on security and economics, drawing from Canada’s international diplomatic network.

The Canadian speeches reveal a different pattern of interest. Trade and economic issues around access to the American market clearly dominate. It will come as a surprise to many Canadians that since the negotiation of the Auto Pact in 1965 when Lyndon Johnson was president, we do better at avoiding protectionism when a Republican is president.  It was Richard Nixon who granted us an exemption from the 1971 surcharge. Ronald Reagan’s dream of a free trade agreement stretching across the Americas began with the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement of 1988. George H.W. Bush granted us an exemption from steel action in 1992 and George W. Bush went to the mat with GOP senators Saxby Chambliss and Trent Lott over the most recent lumber accord. Notably, though, Bill Clinton did ratify the NAFTA, with the labor and environmental safeguards, and we secured Open Skies during his administration. The reciprocity agreement on procurement just negotiated with the Obama administration is a return to the approach begun under Roosevelt with the Reciprocal Trade Agreements of 1936 and 1939.

A second theme from the Canadian prime ministers is encouragement for the Americans to partner in stewardship of our shared land and air and the effort to clean up the Great Lakes, to eliminate acid rain and to address the North. Our current approach to climate change, where we have apparently decided to both hang back and then move in tandem with the United States, is a surprising departure from previous policy. Experience suggests we do best when we take the initiative and offer bold solutions and play on the international table as well as bilaterally.

A third, and important, concern is our quest for binational and bilateral institutions – beginning with the now century-old International Joint Commission – to provide an agreed set of rules for procedure. These provide both assurance and confidence, especially for business, commerce and investment, as they level the playing field to a large extent. 

There are many gems contained in In Roosevelt’s Bright Shadow including Ronald Reagan’s defence of the seal hunt and George H.W. Bush on the thrill of fishing for Arctic char. But two are required reading. Bill Clinton’s defence of federalism and the six questions he poses as a test of federalism at the Forum of the Federations Mont-Tremblant conference in October 1999 has continuing currency. So does the lesson on the American constitution delivered by the junior senator from Massachusetts at the University of Montreal in December 1953. Canadian policy-makers frustrated by the machinations of the American system would do well to read this speech, especially this passage:

Our constitutional founders believed that liberty could be preserved only when the motions of government were slow, the power divided, and tie provided for the wisdom of the people to operate against precipitous and ill-considered action. The delegates believed that they were sacrificing efficiency for liberty. They believed, in the words of James Madison, who in his middle thirties was the most vigorous figure in Philadelphia that they were “so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations…be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.” (151)

The author? John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy would later enunciate what is still the pithiest statement on the Canadian-American relationship to a joint session of Parliament in May, 1961, shortly after he assumed the presidency: “Geography has made us neighbours. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder.” (80)

Keeping that relationship on an even keel is an ongoing challenge, especially for Canada. The burden of primacy means that the United States is preoccupied by crisis abroad and when it comes to the neighbourhood, the problems come from the south – the long-running quarrel with Castro, the frustrations with Chavez and the concern over the fate of Calderone and his existential civil war with the drug cartels. Canada isn’t really a problem and out of sight usually means out of mind. Thus the Canadian challenge of dealing with the hegemon.