Canadian and American flags fly in Point Roberts

Canada’s image makeover in Washington

Canada in Washington: An image makeover for the friendly neighbour

  • Dec. 17, 2014 12:00 p.m.

By Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press

WASHINGTON – An unusual phenomenon has transpired in the United States Congress when it comes to mentions of Canada.

In fact, it’s more like two phenomena.

The first is that references to Canada have gone down over the years — way down.

The Congressional Record suggests a drop by half since the free-trade debates of the early 1990s as distant wars, trade deals, and geopolitical turmoil supplanted the focus once lavished upon the next-door neighbour, with 1,548 mentions in the 102nd Congress of 1991-93 gradually melting into barely 700 mentions in the soon-to-expire 113th Congress.

The second point of interest is the partisan shift: It used to be mostly Democrats talking about the neighbour, sometimes favourably and sometimes negatively. Now it’s mostly Republicans, according to the Capitol Words website.

“There’s been a shift in perception,” said Christopher Sands, a Canada-watcher at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

“That is the perception of Canada being a more conservative place.”

That switch occurred around 2006 — the year Canada elected a Conservative government. But Sands said the political-image makeover has been more gradual, since Canada balanced its books in the 1990s, lowered its corporate taxes, and became a huge oil exporter.

In an indication of that, the conservative Wall Street Journal that once called Canada an honourary Third-World member now gushes with praise for the northern neighbour.

It’s usually used as an unflattering point of comparison with the paper’s principal object of disdain: the Obama administration. The theme grew noisiest this summer with the Burger King move to Canada, with its friendlier business taxes.

That image makeover was also evident when the newspaper’s editor-in-chief interviewed Prime Minister Stephen Harper during a public forum this past fall at Goldman Sachs headquarters in New York.

“Have you changed Canada?” Gerard Baker asked the prime minister.

“Is it a more conservative country? Is it a country that values more now than it did before you came in, the private sector? That is more conservative in outlook, and in sensibility, and in character?”

Harper replied that, yes, he likes to think so. He then proceeded to offer some advice to American conservatives about how his party had worked to attract immigrants. During the same event, Harper bashed Vladimir Putin and announced that he was considering extending Canada’s mission against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

So the next-door neighbour known for its socialized medicine, liberal social policy, and aversion to the Iraq war is now perceived through a slightly different prism: big oil, small corporate taxes, and hawkish rhetoric against Putin and ISIL.

That trend will accelate in early 2015.

A decision is coming soon on the Keystone XL oil pipeline. And whatever President Barack Obama decides, it’s sure to prompt some noisy confrontation — against a Republican, oil-friendly Congress if he says no, or against anti-pipeline protesters who have promised civil disobedience if he says yes.

The extent to which oil and Canada have become synonymous in the U.S. is laid out in another set of stats, those from the Montreal-based media-monitoring company Influence Communication.

In the rest of the world the big Canadian story of the year was the Ottawa shooting.

Not so in the U.S.

Here, Keystone was easily the No. 1 Canadian story. Influence said there were 9,449 media items mentioning it — 30 per cent more than the Parliament Hill shooting, which received blanket coverage on U.S. news networks until it was swept aside by a case of Ebola in New York City.

On late-night TV, comedian Stephen Colbert mentioned both stories, at different points. His young, liberal studio audience booed when Keystone came up, but it cheered vigorously during a tribute to Kevin Vickers, the sergeant-at-arms who felled the Ottawa gunman in the halls of Parliament.

And that dual response hints at another fact of life.

It’s that the U.S. doesn’t have uniformity of opinion on Canadian issues, any more than Canadians themselves have uniform opinions on events within their own borders.

While the Wall Street Journal was praising Canada’s business climate, the more liberal New York Times this year ran a feature about how Canada’s middle class had surpassed the American one: “They are working fewer hours for more pay, enjoying a stronger safety net, living longer on average, and facing less income inequality.”

One of the people who noticed that Times story is expected to announce a presidential run in early 2015. Hillary Clinton, the early front-runner in presidential polls, mentioned the findings in a Washington speech this year.

Clinton also had a few kind words for Canada when she came to speak — for a hefty fee — to a progressive conference in Ottawa, where one of the other speakers was Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

And her Republican opponents will, occasionally, criticize Canada. Not all those references in Congress have been flattering, as proven by the warnings from the right about the perils of public health care.

So attitudes about Canada don’t quite follow partisan or ideological lines, Sands said. The broad backdrop, beyond the occasional irritant, is one of a friendship that crosses partisan boundaries.

“There isn’t really a partisan difference when it comes to Canada,” Sands said. “Both parties like Canada — Republicans and Democrats support good relations with Canada.”

That’s borne out by other numbers.

Gallup Inc. releases a poll every year on Americans’ attitudes toward other countries. And every year, regardless of how many times Canada gets mentioned in Congress, and regardless of who’s happy with it and who’s upset, the survey reveals the same finding, considered so routine now that the polling company sometimes doesn’t even bother highlighting it in a press release.

Year in, year out, it puts Canada at No. 1. Once again this year, Americans expressed a more favourable view of their northern neighbour than any other country — with a 93 per cent favourable rating.

In celebration of that friendship, one of the increasingly rare references to Canada in the U.S. Congress came this year from New York Democrat Bill Owens, who in a statement from the chamber wished Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, a happy early 200th birthday.

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