By Arthur Milnes
SPECIAL TO THE News
KINGSTON, Ontario – Most Americans are probably unaware that on July 1 their Canadian neighbors will be marking their 150th anniversary as a nation. It’s a big thing up here.
But as President John F. Kennedy said in his first foreign trip in 1961, geography may have made us neighbors, but history made us friends. And it made friends of our leaders.
So as that 150th anniversary approaches, let us reflect on the bonds of friendship between our prime ministers and your presidents over the last century and a half. Yes, there have been disputes and personality clashes, but overall our leaders have crafted a nation-to-nation relationship that Sir Winston Churchill described, rightly, as a model for the entire world.
Indeed, your presidents have come to know my country since our earliest days, both as leaders and private citizens, and I have a personal story to prove it. It was the moment as a young journalist this Canadian learned that leaders – even American presidents – are human.
The late 1990s found my wife and me in an isolated mainly native village in Canada’s mysterious Arctic. For a year we ran the “mighty” Deh Cho Drum weekly newspaper, circulation 800 or so. They called me editor, but Alison and I also lived at the paper, sold ads sometimes and even delivered it around town each week.
Outside our door, on the main street that lacked even a stop light, was a highway sign. It announced that Edmonton, Alberta, was 927 miles away. To the south, that is.
And then a man named George Herbert Walker Bush entered our lives. Hearing that he was in Canada’s Arctic fishing for char, I wrote him a letter and invited him to submit a Canadian fishing column to my tiny paper. In addition, I frankly told him that my boss was too cheap to give me a freelance budget but if he wrote for me about fishing in Canada, I’d pay him my own way.
So I also enclosed a Canadian ball cap and a fishing lure.
Three weeks later my fax machine at the newspaper went off. A four-pager was coming through. From a place I’d heard of. You probably have, too. It’s called Kennebunkport, Maine.
America’s most famous one-finger typist had been at work. And I knew Bush had typed it personally because after I got over my shock, I phoned the number on the fax and found myself speaking personally with the 41st president of the United States. He confirmed he’d just written and apologized for his typos.
I assured him my paper’s readers would understand and besides, I’d be doing a light copy edit for him anyway. He liked that pledge.
When news of the president’s column hit the wires – eventually – I had my 10 (not 15) minutes of fame that Andy Warhol promised us all. And I’ve remained in your former president’s debt ever since. He once even hosted Alison and me in Houston, Texas, years later, and over coffee we talked about Canada and fishing.
Not a single political word was exchanged. And I would not have had it any other way.
In reflecting on Canada’s special anniversary, I’ve thought a great deal about Bush’s gesture and marveled at the experience of many of his predecessors. Perhaps my favorite story involves President Teddy Roosevelt, the famed “bull mooser” who inspired America and the world.
The great hunter and naturalist came to Quebec once and, believe it or not, was attacked by – you guessed it – a Canadian bull moose.
“I was sorry to have to kill him, but there was no alternative,” Roosevelt later wrote. “As it was, I only stopped him in the nick of time, and had I not shot straight at least one of us would have paid forfeit with his life in another second. Even in Africa I have never known anything but a rogue elephant or buffalo, or an occasional rhinoceros, to attack so viciously or with such premeditation when itself neither wounded nor threatened.”
Those antlers can still be found today at TR’s museum in Oyster Bay.
One of the most beloved U.S. presidents by Canadians of the day was Franklin Roosevelt. His family’s Canadian home, at Campobello, New Brunswick, is today a museum and permanent tribute to what we Canadians and Americans have built.
FDR visited my home community of Kingston in 1938. And as Canada prepares to mark our 150th birthday, the words he spoke here are worthy of remembering today by citizens on both sides of the border.
“We as neighbors are true friends, because we maintain our own rights with frankness, because we refuse to accept the twists of secret diplomacy, because we settle our disputes by consultation,” he said. “We seek to be scrupulously fair and helpful, not only in our relations with each other, but each of us at home in our relations with our own people.”
Words to remember. Happy 150th birthday, Canada. And thank you from Canada to all Americans.
Arthur Milnes, a public historian in Kingston, is the editor of the just released “With Faith and Goodwill: 150 Years of Canada-U.S. Friendship.” He is a past speechwriter to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and was the research assistant for five years on former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s best-selling 2007 memoirs.