Canada's balancing act

Published : May 09, 2003 00:00 IST

Canada refuses to toe the United States' line on the Iraq war. The act of defiance against the mighty neighbour, side by side with some duplicitous deals to help the U.S. war effort, earns Prime Minister Jean Chretien both cheers and jeers domestically.

in Toronto

THE war against Iraq has cast a shadow over relations between Canada and the United States, although the darkest phase seems to be over. After the Liberal government took a firm stand in not supporting the U.S. in the adventure to get rid of Saddam Hussein, there was some sniping across the border.

Relations suffered yet another jolt when U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci told a gathering in Toronto that his country was "upset and disappointed" because Canada had kept itself out of the war. Terming Canada's decision a "bump in relations", Cellucci said Americans found it hard to believe why "Canada is not there for us now". He, however, hinted that Washington may not punish Canada for its stand because "it's not in our economic interests to do that". His words added fuel to a raging debate on the subject, although the Ambassador sought to make amends by saying: "But I think it is important that despite some disappointments, that we continue to work together. We are friends. We are allies. We are neighbours - and we are family. And nothing is ever going to change that."

It was diplomacy at work. How much of it will calm the rough waters is to be seen. There is already speculation that President George Bush may cancel a scheduled visit to Ottawa on May 5, although the Ambassador was quick to point out that any such cancellation may be purely owing to the ongoing war and not for any other reason. It is a fact that Prime Minister Jean Chretien and President Bush have not hit it off as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and President Ronald Reagan once did. But for Chretien it could be his last great act of standing up to the U.S. as he would be walking into the political sunset next year.

This act of defiance against the mighty neighbour brought the Prime Minister both kudos and brickbats. It appeared that he was seeking to stay in line with the public mood. When the polls showed overwhelming support for the "no war" cause, he took the decision to keep out of the war, unlike Gulf War I when Canada was fully committed to the operation. Although he has been getting a favourable press from the Left-leaning media, he has been whip-lashed in the Right-wing media. As usual, the experts are divided.

Charges that Canada had abandoned its "historic" and "traditional" allies, the U.S. and the U.K., have re-kindled the debate on the ties that bind the three countries. There is no doubt about the fact that Canada tried hard to get the U.S. to seek a mandate for the war from the U.N. Asserting in Parliament in mid-March that Canada would not participate in a war against Iraq, the Prime Minister said that he had made it clear that Canada would commit itself to the war only if it was approved by the U.N. Security Council. He said that Canada had strived to get a second resolution passed but failed in the attempt.

Possibly because of the fear of a backlash from the U.S. in some form or the other or just in order to placate the anti-Canadian sentiment in the U.S., the Liberal government eventually decided to move a motion in support of the U.S. So the Prime Minister, who sat on the fence for long on the matter of Iraq, was walking the razor's edge. His government has been duplicitous in seeking to help the U.S. war effort in various ways, such as by positioning a naval task force in the Persian Gulf, sending at least 2,000 troops to Afghanistan, in the process freeing U.S. troops for the war, deploying Air Force personnel for U.S. Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), aircraft, posting "exchange soldiers" with the Australian, British and American troops, and providing military planners to the U.S. Central Command in Qatar.

Even Ambassador Cellucci acknowledged the dichotomy in Canada's policy, saying that it was doing its best in the matter of the war without directly being a part of the "coalition of the willing". The Prime Minister, who made it clear that he was not in favour of "regime change" anywhere, promised that his country would help the victims of the war and in the rebuilding of Iraq, in which Canada's expertise in gas and oil exploration could be utilised.

Whether the U.S. will invite Canada for the work of rebuilding Iraq is to be seen, particularly because there is a strong feeling among many sections that countries such as France and Germany that have not supported the war ought not to be the beneficiaries of the U.S. largesse in terms of contracts and so on. A proposed meeting between Canadian Deputy Prime Minister John Manley, who is also the Finance Minister, and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, that would discuss economic issues, is significant because of U.S. moves to tighten its borders by resorting to new regulations that could affect the movement of Canadians and also trade. The value of the daily trade between the two countries is put at $1.3 billion, and the U.S. accounts for 85 per cent of Canada's exports. Considerations of trade are probably among the chief motivating factors behind the desire to iron out the differences between the two countries.

Paul Tellier, chief executive officer of Bombadier, one of Canada's leading companies, is one of those who have pointed out that the U.S economy is vital to Canada's interests and that the faster the bumps in mutual relations are removed the better it would be for Canada. In similar vein, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that the relationship "hitting a few bumps on the road" would "not stop the journey that we are making together to forge a truly integrated North American economy".

The U.S. anger, which was reflected in Ambassador Cellucci's remarks, may also have to do with the fact that some Liberal MPs, including a Minister, have indulged in open U.S.-bashing. Carrolyn Parish, MP, said, employing an expletive: "Damn Americans. I hate those b... ." Minister for Natural Resources Harbance (Herb) Dhaliwal, the only Indo-Canadian Federal Minister, termed Bush a failed statesman for having ignored the U.N. Such words stung the right-wing Alliance Party and the Progressive Conservatives, and provided MPs belonging to them an opportunity to get at the Liberals who are riding high in the opinion polls.

The right-wing MPs blamed Chretien for not reining in his MPs. Though Parish apologised in the House for her words, the Liberal government has refused to offer an apology to the U.S. for the pronouncements of the MPs supporting it. The Liberal Senator, Laurier LaPierre, was quoted in the Senate's Debates as having used an expletive in referring to the Americans. LaPierre, who has several of his close family members living in the U.S., later maintained that he had not used the word in question.

Manley expressed regrets for his MPs' "disrespectful" comments and told them to be careful in future about what they said. Manley is aiming for the Prime Minister's job, for which there are other contestants also, including former Finance Minister Paul Marin, considered by some political observers as a favourite. Martin, a big businessman who is a darling of Corporate Canada, has not let himself to be drawn into the mess. Pundits predict that if Martin becomes Prime Minister, he and Bush may be compatible as leaders.

Chretien appeared on a U.S. television network talk show and said that the U.S. had "won" the war and that Saddam Hussein had been "contained" through the efforts to disarm him. The "containment" part of the statement brought a sharp response from U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who hit back, saying about Hussein, "How long do we think we can keep him in a box? And what box is he in? And he is not contained." All this had a snowballing effect on the already tense relations.

In terms of geography and history, Canada and the U.S. are indeed one family. But politically they have taken different stands at different points of time. James Laxer, Professor of Political Science at York University, Toronto, points out that the U.S has "relentlessly stood up for its own interests in a long list of security conflicts with Canada." He adds: "In the few acute trade disputes Canada has with the U.S., it seems not to make much difference how Canada behaves." He says the government of a "middle-size country" such as Canada is right in adhering to "multilateralism and respect for international law [that] are essential to our survival as a sovereign country."

While praising Chretien's stand as that of a "statesman", the commentator Peter Newman said that for a "Canadian Prime Minister to deliberately flout the expressed wishes of an American President is never easy. The retaliatory potential of a White House occupant is enormous. Nothing more extravagant than tightening U.S.-Canada border restrictions to the same extremes as those applied at America's southern frontier with Mexico could push Canada's economy into chaos." He added: "What makes Chretien's stand particularly praiseworthy is that he realised war with Iraq was not an issue to which he could apply his customary and often lackadaisical art of pragmatic compromise. Had he backed the Bush initiative, we would have had to send troops to the battlefields, as we did in 1991 during the first Saddam war. Since we can't even get our naval helicopters to take off and land safely, this doesn't seem like much leverage."

Efforts to end the rift between the neighbours are under way in right earnest and with the end of the war the "family fight" may well be forgotten. The fight had spread even to the sporting arena with hockey fans booing teams from each other's country during the singing of national anthems. It also resulted in a verbal duel between a hockey commentator and a co-host.

It also drew in Ontario's Tory Premier and a former Tory Prime Minister into the ring against the Liberals. The domestic ramifications have been intense even as Canadians await the U.S. ramifications - if there are going to be any.

Some irritantsEUGENE CORREIA

ONE of the causes for Canada's unhappiness with U.S. security rules has been the case of a Canadian of Indian origin who was "humiliated" by officials at Chicago airport.

The Kerala-born Berna Cruz related to this correspondent how she was deported back to India after she tried to return to Canada. She said that on arrival in Chicago en route to Toronto, she was pulled aside and accused of carrying a fake passport. The officials concerned would not believe that she had only stopped over in Chicago on her way to India and that immigration officials at the Toronto airport and in Chicago had cleared her. They said her passport was possibly made in Sri Lanka, "They asked me how come I have a name like Berna Cruz. They said how come I don't have a name like Singh," she said, adding, "When I began crying, they told me to stop shedding crocodile tears. They asked me if I would like to go back or stay in jail." Berna said that officials did not even allow her to contact the Canadian Embassy. "Luckily, the pilot of the Kuwait Airways plane said he would help me once he gets to Kuwait. The Canadian Embassy in Kuwait issued a new passport. The pilot's daughter contacted my parents in Kerala and my children elsewhere in India," Berna wrote to the Canadian Prime Minister . She had not received a reply from the Canadian government. Informed sources said that the Canadian government was piqued by the U.S. action and the matter was raised in Parliament. The issue also came up in the U.S. Congress.

A Sikh woman also came forward with a similar tale of harassment by U.S. officials.

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