The United States in the 2006 Canadian Election

John von Heyking

December 1, 2005

On December 13th, U. S. Ambassador David Wilkins, a South Carolina Republican, delivered a speech in Ottawa expressing concern about anti-American rhetoric in the Canadian election:

I’ve been on the ballot 13 times. I understand election-year politics. But the last time I checked, the United States was not on your ballot. But think about this: What if one of your best friends criticized you directly and indirectly almost relentlessly? What if that friend’s agenda was to highlight your perceived flaws while avoiding mentioning your successes? Wouldn’t that begin to sow the seeds of doubt in your mind about the strength of your friendship?

He went on to defend the U. S. record on Kyoto and climate change, the Congressional plan to require all foreigners to hold passports when they enter the U. S. (currently Canadians and Americans require any government issued identification with proof of citizenship like a birth certificate), NAFTA rulings concerning softwood lumber, and Iraq.

By now Americans are used to foreign politicians seeking (and obtaining) electoral success by pandering to anti-Americanism. The reelection of Gerhard Schroeder in 2002 was perhaps the most consequential example as it solidified German opposition to the invasion of Iraq.

Recent years have seen an upsurge of anti-American rhetoric by Canadian figures. Among the more notorious examples are comments by former Liberal Party Member of Parliament Carolyn Parrish, who thought the microphones were turned off when she stated, “Damn Americans… I hate those bastards.” Later, on national television, she stomped on a George W. Bush doll. As a minor figure who’s now retired from federal politics, Canadians know her for little else. Americans will also remember former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien aide Francine Ducros labeling Bush a "moron." Of course, some Americans have indulged in similar vulgarity when they notice Canada, as exemplified this week when Tucker Carlson referred to Canada as a "retarded cousin."

The Bush Administration seems to have decided to push back at anti-Americanism during elections, as evidenced by Wilkins’s speech. Another example of "push back" may be last month’s surfacing a U.S. nuclear submarine in Canadian waters near the North Pole. Anti-Americanism in Canada is partially fed by the refusal of the Liberal Party to maintain Canada’s military capacities. Canadian elites promote a fantasyland foreign policy enabling them to congratulate themselves for Canada’s powerlessness.

While Canadians have responded to Wilkins’s speech by complaining about American "intervention" and "creeping American conservatism," the timing of the speech suggests it was equally directed toward to the American audience. Just days prior, on December 9th, Paul Martin shared the global stage with Bill Clinton at an international conference on climate change in Montréal. Martin certainly benefited from appearing onstage with Bill Clinton (one rarely hears Canadian nationalists complain about Americans on the left, including Michael Moore and Robin Williams, "intervening" in the election).

A day earlier and anticipating his chance to schmooze with Clinton the following day, Martin could not contain his excitement as he chastised the U. S. for failing to meet Kyoto emissions cut targets:

“To the reticent nations, including the United States, I say there is such a thing as a global conscience, and now is the time to listen to it,” Martin told the plenary in Montréal Wednesday.

One can compare Martin’s reference to his "global conscience" as an example of what Thomas Sowell refers to as "self-congratulation as a basis for social policy." Even so, it drew the ire of the Bush Administration, which rightly pointed out that the U. S., while not a signatory to Kyoto, has cut its emissions at a higher rate than Canada. Annoyed at Martin’s self-congratulation as the basis of anti-American electioneering, the administration pointed out his hypocrisy.

While Canadian nationalists have called Wilkins’s speech an effort by the Bush Administration to effect "regime change" in Canada, the truth is that the speech had the immediate effect of boosting Martin and other politicians of the left, while enabling them to label the Conservatives as overly obsequious toward the U. S.

Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party have had to distance themselves from policies appearing too closely aligned to U. S. positions. Shortly after Wilkins’s speech, a speech Harper delivered in 1997 praising the U. S. political system and culture circulated in the press. In it he criticized the Canadian welfare state and the general malaise of Canadian politics.

Since then, Harper published a letter in the Washington Times, responding to an editorial favorably comparing him and the Conservative Party to Republicans, in which he said he does not support sending Canadian troops to Iraq and that the Conservatives would hold a free vote on same-sex marriage (instead of making its prohibition party policy). In response to voter concern over U. S. NAFTA policy toward softwood lumber, Harper also suggested Canada has "probably gone as far in our trading relationship with the Americans as we can," and that his party would have to seek other trading partners to compensate.

While Wilkins’s speech gave Paul Martin a bit of a boost, and the opportunity to please nationalists by mispronouncing the surname of the ambassador, "Williams," it forced Stephen Harper to distinguish his policies from American conservatives, and so pushed the Conservatives toward the left. While Wilkins’s speech may have harmed Harper in the short-term for giving Martin the opportunity to bash the Conservatives for being "too American," the speech may actually help Harper’s Conservatives over the long term. While the speech may not intimidate anyone, it did remind the leaders and the electorate that anti-American campaigning is shameful, which in effect removes it from the election as a legitimate campaign tool.

That requires the parties to demonstrate they can act responsibly toward the United States in a manner appropriate for a sovereign country. The stakes are enormous, given the extent to which Canada relies upon the United States for trade. The speech and its fallout forced the Conservatives to show they can "stand up" to the Americans, while enabling them to maintain their position as the only party with a proven track record of acting responsibly toward the U. S. Harper’s recent critical comments on the United States can be seen as kind of "only Nixon can go to China" moment because only the Conservatives can "stand up" to the U.S. without referring to Americans as "morons."

John von Heyking is an associate professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada.