Yes, We Can, Eh?

How Canadians are dealing with an American president they actually like.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper

There is a pattern to U.S. presidential visits familiar to many Canadians. First, there is eager anticipation after an election—will Canada be blessed with the new president’s first foreign visit? That tradition was upset by George W. Bush in 2001, who went to Mexico first. (He’s making up for it by giving an early post-presidential speech in a welcoming petro-emirate: Calgary.) Then, there is the search for a personal connection to Canada. Bush disappointed here again—but President Obama’s brother-in-law is from Burlington, Ontario! Finally, there is the attempt by Canadian institutions to steal some of the presidential limelight. Among the most popular, but perhaps the most provincial, was a CBC Radio contest inviting Canadians to stuff Obama’s iPod with Canadian songs. (Congratulations, Joni Mitchell and Malajube; better luck next time, Steppenwolf and Céline Dion.)

The key to any first meeting between president and prime minister is establishing a good personal working relationship. Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan’s duet on “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” at an Irish-themed summit in Quebec City was a high point, while Lyndon Johnson’s manhandling of Lester B. Pearson  is best forgotten. What do Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper share? Apparently, kids of a similar age and an enjoyment of policy wonkery. (Harper, however, has yet to share in Obama’s cross-border appeal—the “Americans for Harper” site awaits your registration.)

Today’s visit, with almost four hours of total face time for Harper, was long enough for both men to engage in some serious policy talk. Three issues dominate the public conversation in Canada about the U.S. relationship: free trade; Afghanistan, where Canada has sustained 108 combat deaths since 2002 with a deployment of about 2,700 troops; and climate change, oil, and energy issues.

Canadians are occasionally aware, as Obama’s U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice once said, that they are like “the shy, admiring boy who gets all spiffed up to win the heart of his dreamboat, while she doesn’t even know he exists.” So in addition to the government-to-government contacts, Canadians, and some Americans, are doing end runs around that formal relationship—attempting to shape responses to free trade, political, economic, and climate change challenges in new ways.

On the issue of free trade, the Buy America provision of the stimulus bill states: “None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for a project for the construction, alteration, maintenance, or repair of a public building or public work unless all of the iron, steel, and manufactured goods used in the project are produced in the United States.” This is a huge challenge to Canada, which sends more than 80 percent of its exports to the United States. Despite all that talk you’ve heard about China, Canada is still the U.S.’s largest trading partner, with more than $550 billion in goods and services crossing the border each year.

Nobody knows precisely how Canada would be affected by this provision. But it has caused a collective shudder—especially in Ontario, the country’s manufacturing center, where auto manufacturing is heavily integrated with the United States. “We’re deeply concerned,” says Thomas d’Aquino of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, the country’s main big-business lobby. “It could apply to anything.” Globe and Mail blogger Andrew Steele puts it bluntly: “If Obama leaves the meeting thinking anything but ‘gotta stop Congress from screwing the Canadians on trade’ it is a failure of a meeting.” Ontario’s International Trade Minister Sandra Pupatello is more optimistic, saying she has been encouraged by her conversations with American officials and auto executives.

But there’s hardly national agreement on the value of free trade to Canada in the first place. A June 2008 poll shows that as many Canadians think free trade has been bad for the country as think it’s been good, and 60 percent think the United States has benefited more. This ambivalence may help explain the Canadian Auto Workers union’s call for a “Buy Canadian” policy to apply to any future Canadian stimulus package. This is especially remarkable because CAW members staff many of those Canadian auto plants that could be threatened by the Buy America plan.

On climate change, Harper’s reluctance to call for quick cuts in carbon emissions has many Canadian environmentalists looking south for support. Buoyed by their perceptions about Obama’s platform, activist groups and Indian tribes have bought ads in American papers, hoping to “make it clear to Obama that Canada’s citizens do not support our Prime Minister’s climate wrecking.” Today’s announcement of a tepid-sounding “clean energy dialogue” between the two countries is likely to continue Canadian pressure via American channels.

This wagon-hitching can be explained by cross-border connections and political realities. Obama’s disapproval rating in Canada is less than 4 percent, while Harper clings to power in a minority parliament. “You have a Canadian prime minister who wants Canada to look more like the U.S., and an American president who wants the U.S. to look more like Canada,” says pollster Peter Donolo.

Obama may be the face of the political future in a Canada where every fifth resident is foreign-born but which has had only one foreign-born prime minister since the days of 19th-century Scottish immigration. * Some Canadians who are asking “Where’s our Obama?” have settled on someone who shares his world-traveler and Harvard connections: opposition leader Michael Ignatieff, who also knows Obama economic adviser Lawrence Summers and foreign-policy adviser Samantha Power.

Of course, there are a few things Canadian that Americans would like. There’s oil and natural gas to be bought (though at around $40 a barrel, the tap from Alberta’s tar sands is closing, with further development projects becoming uneconomical). And Obama appears to have been briefed on Canada’s mostly sound banking system, which has required no TARP money and little regulatory rescue—he touted Canada’s fiscal and financial strength during his pre-visit interview with the CBC. Obama adviser Paul Volcker told a Canadian audience this week that the ideal banking system, focusing on traditional lending and depositing “looks more like the Canadian system than the American system.”

Still, most Canadians viewed today’s visit as an occasion to vent their historic insecurities about their larger, noisier, and more famous southern neighbor. Referring to Obama’s visit, Ed McNamara, a Toronto screenwriter, said, “I don’t hope he’ll do anything great. I fear we’re going to do something stupid.”

Correction, Feb. 20, 2009: This article mistakenly stated that Canada has had no foreign-born prime minister since the 19th century. John Turner, prime minister in 1984, was born in the United Kingdom. (Return to the corrected sentence.)