When Paul Martin and George W. Bush sit down at the White House this week for their first extended summit, Canadians shouldn't hold their breath for significant trade deals, cross-border accords, or even mealy-mouthed memorandums of understanding. With the relationship between Canada and the United States plunging toward a historic nadir, the Prime Minister will be lucky to walk away with a nice photo and a souvenir pen.
It's more than the deep divisions over Iraq, or the Canadian public's palpable distaste for a Yalie cowboy and his conservative politics. Suddenly, there's a meanness to our day-to-day interactions. We harass American flag-waving school kids, and boo their national anthem at hockey games. Promises to stand "shoulder to shoulder" after the Sept. 11 attacks have been overshadowed by epithets like "moron" and "bastards." Symptoms of a declining friendship are everywhere you look.
An exclusive new Maclean's poll probing what Canadians and Americans really think of each other shows this new sense of animus is disproportionately centred north of the border. Sixty-eight per cent of Canadians say the U.S.'s global reputation has worsened over the last decade, while 38 per cent of us say we feel more negatively about America since Sept. 11 (the biggest reasons cited -- the Iraq war and George W. Bush). Asked to pick the word that best describes our neighbours to the south, the No. 1 response was "arrogant," with "patriotic" (not necessarily a compliment) close behind. More of us say Americans are "dangerous" than "compassionate." And even though a majority would be willing to immediately commit Canadian troops to defend the U.S. in the event of another attack, only 44 per cent of us "strongly support" the idea.
On the flip side, most Americans remain indifferent to the insults and jibes floating across the border. Despite more than two years of high-level political conflict, and the best attempts of talk-radio foamers to lump Canada together with "socialist weenies" of Old Europe, 74 per cent of U.S. respondents say their opinion of our country remains unchanged. Twelve per cent say they think less of us, while an equal number say they like us more. A quarter of Americans think Canada's global reputation has improved, while 60 per cent say it has stayed the same. Their word of choice for their northern neighbours is "tolerant"; "compassionate" and "funny" are also high on the list. And an overwhelming majority would put their troops in harm's way to help us, with 60 per cent strongly supporting the idea.
Truth be told, many Canadians take a certain pride in raising such American ire. If we can't always compete with the proprietors of the world's most powerful economy and military, we reserve the right to thumb our noses at them. It's a beery brand of nationalism -- loud-mouthed flag-waving coupled with a Ned Flanders preachiness -- that risks becoming as stale as a Sunday morning barroom. The type of patriotic fervour we once professed to loathe is now one of our trademarks, and co-opted to sell everything from Molson's suds, to Tim Hortons donuts, to Petro-Canada gasoline. Our obsessive need to poke and prod every aspect of our relationship with the U.S. infects our books, cinema, music and media -- including, obviously, this very magazine. It's tempting to call it our greatest cultural rivalry -- except that, technically speaking, the other party should know that you're competing with them.
The relationship between Canada and the United States is far more complex than how its leaders, or even its governments, get along. Millions of people traverse the border each month for work, vacations or simply to visit family. It's a peculiar kinship that has survived more than 200 years of ups and downs, boundary kerfuffles, trade disputes, even a war. But the findings of this Maclean's poll -- sustained indifference on one side, and a growing animosity on the other -- suggest even greater challenges ahead. We've long needed them more than they need us. Martin's summit with Bush is front-page news here at home. In an America that's grappling with foreign wars and domestic fears, its likely to be a brief at the back of the A-section. What Canadians may well ask themselves is how much further down the depth chart of friends they're willing to fall.
Any Canadians care to comment? Is the author on to something or is this similar to the hot air that Time often puts out down here?