As millions of Americans reminisce about Ronald Reagan's legacy, good relations with Canada do not immediately come to mind. However, former first lady Nancy Reagan's call to former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, asking him to deliver a eulogy at former President Reagan's state funeral, was a fitting reminder of the close bonds that characterized Canadian-U.S. relations during the Reagan administration.
Just as Ronald Reagan was able to reach thousands in the 1980s by conveying a positive, upbeat mood about America, so he extended a similar optimistic message across the border to Canada.
Friendship and cordiality characterized the Reagan-Mulroney governments. Under the two leaders, both nations experienced a political and personal realignment.
Until Mulroney, Canada pursued a "Third Option" policy that reduced Canadian economic and political dependency on the United States. This policy came in response to a hardening of relations between the two nations because of their differences over the Vietnam War. However, this policy was dramatically reversed in 1984, when Mulroney's Conservative party won the general election.
Though Mulroney was not as conservative as Reagan, the two men instantly took to one another. Ever the great communicator, Reagan knew how to make Canada feel good. Following Mulroney's landslide victory in 1984, Reagan called to congratulate the new Canadian prime minister, quipping that there were now "two Irish leaders in North America."
In 1985, the White House released a message that no other country in the world was as important to the United States as Canada and that the United States was "blessed to have such a nation on our northern border." What followed was the "Shamrock Summit" in Quebec, where the two men met publicly to celebrate the renewed ties. Before parting the summit, Reagan and Mulroney belted out a rendition of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," signifying a new era in Canadian-U.S. relations.
Perhaps the most important symbol of this new relationship was the signing of the Canada-United States free trade agreement that took effect in 1989. The FTA was in response to the changing global economy in the early 1980s, and the sense that Canada and the United States needed to unite if they were to counter the growing power of trading blocs in Europe and Asia. As a result of this agreement, relations between the two nations -- economically, politically and socially -- were closer than they had been in decades.
Today as some Americans question Reagan's legacy, there can be no doubt of his ability to uplift the waning American spirit following the Vietnam War and the Nixon and Carter years. During the same time, Reagan extended a similar dignity toward Canada by ensuring our northern neighbors that they were an important ally and friend. Mulroney's call to Nancy Reagan just minutes before her husband's death June 5 was a poignant reminder of this enduring friendship.
The Reagan/Mulroney relationship was not conflict-free. Then as now, the two nations argued over fisheries, forests and defense. However, at least under Reagan, there was an aura of respect and decency emanating toward Canada. Most important was the message that Canada counted for something in the White House.
Ironically, in a recent interview on CNN's Larry King Live, Brian Mulroney discussed his relations with Reagan and their unique friendship. At the end of the show, King said goodbye to Mulroney and then clumsily identified him as "the former prime minister of Great Britain."
Though it is easy to exaggerate the seriousness of this faux pas, it is somewhat indicative of the vulnerable state of Canada/United States relations. If George W. Bush hopes to follow in the steps of his great mentor, he will work to maintain the close personal ties that were the hallmark of the Reagan-Mulroney union.
Janet Larkin, a Canadian citizen, is a visiting assistant professor of history at Fredonia State College.