Stephen Harper calls for Canadian nationalism that’s not anti-American
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OTTAWA— On a Canada-U.S. business stage, Prime Minister Stephen Harper touted Canadians as more open to global trade than a “surprisingly” protectionist United States, and warned no one should doubt the seriousness of bigger long-term fiscal problems facing Washington.
Answering questions from moderator Maryscott Greenwood, a Democrat and former American embassy official in Ottawa, a relaxed Harper extolled the Canada-U.S. economic and political relationship as stronger than ever under his “extremely pro-American” government.
He painted Canada as a mature trading partner determined to build new ties to Asia while still nurturing vital links to the U.S. through projects such as a planned—and mostly Canadian-financed—new bridge from Windsor to Detroit.
Harper spoke frankly of his government’s deliberate effort to honour the north and the War of 1812 as part of a campaign to project a new brand of Canadian nationalism that celebrates the differences in Canadian policy and “character” as well as this country’s special relationship to its biggest and most powerful ally.
“We are strong Canadian nationalists who value what is distinctive and unique about this country and think in our own modest way that this is actually a better country,” said Harper. “What we’ve tried to do and tried to tell Canadians is there’s no need for true Canadian nationalism to have any sense of anti-Americanism.”
Yet for all his talk about shared values and interests, the prime minister drew sharp contrasts between the two countries.
He told the Canadian-American Business Council he sees “a surprising amount of protectionism in American political discourse on both sides of the political divide. In this country, it’s very different.”
The free trade debate nearly 25 years ago when Conservatives won the 1988 election over the trade deal with the U.S. was a “traumatic and cathartic exercise” in which, Harper said, critics of free trade took a “credibility hit.”
Dire warnings of disadvantages to the Canadian economy, assimilation, loss of sovereignty, and predictions of “the disappearance of Canada as a nation,” didn’t come to pass, said Harper. “I think that was a turning point.”
“The concept of being part of a trading global economy is not seriously challenged here the way it is surprisingly challenged in the U.S.”
Harper expressed confidence that U.S. political leaders would resolve the immediate “fiscal cliff” crisis by year’s end. That’s when a $600 billion package of automatic tax hikes and government spending cuts takes effect, which Harper said “could be a significant negative shock to the American and, therefore, the global economy.”
“Surely now that the election is over, reasonable people will come to those solutions and not wait for a crisis.”
But he cautioned there’s no such thing as a fiscal “bungee cord.”
“I think that kind of talk is foolish. If you go over a cliff, you can't be sure what will happen next. We saw with the collapse of Lehman Brothers how a single major event can trigger a series of events that it’s very hard to pull back from.”
A separate and larger problem, said Harper, is the U.S. needs a “credible fiscal plan over the mid-term to deal with what I think is a pretty serious long-run fiscal situation.”
For its part, Canada will continue to pursue greater trade and energy ties with Asia, although the prime minister refused to tip his hand on whether his government will approve a controversial takeover of Nexen Inc by China’s state-owned CNOOC.
While he views TransCanada’s proposed north-south Keystone XL pipeline as a “great” energy and security project, Harper said U.S. President Barack Obama has indicated he has made no decision yet and “I accept him at his word on that.”
The prime minister did sound a frustrated note at the end, that for all the attention Canada pays to the U.S., it is not always reciprocated.
“My only complaint about the United States—and every Canadian will say this, but it’s just the way it is—we always like to have more attention in the United States. We certainly pay a lot of attention to you. You sometimes don't pay enough of attention to us.”