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Another Voice: Trump-Trudeau squabble has historical echoes

By Janet Dorothy Larkin

Despite the recent heated exchange between President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, history reminds us that Canadian-American relations have long been characterized by cooperation and friendship, interspersed with periods of conflict and tension.

Ironically, during the 1970s, a similar brouhaha erupted between former American president Richard Nixon and former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Justin Trudeau’s father. The source of contention between the two world leaders was over trade and politics.

In a brusque tone similar to that taken by Trump toward Canada and his allies today, President Nixon abruptly announced in 1971 that the United States could no longer be “Uncle Sugar” to the world. America’s economic problems would be tackled by, among other measures, placing a surcharge on imports. No country was more shocked by Nixon’s news than longtime ally and trade partner Canada.

So ruffled was the president by Trudeau’s questioning of the practicality of America’s new national policy on trade that he infamously called the Canadian prime minister “an a**hole” and “a pompous egghead.” When Trudeau later learned what Nixon had called him, he mocked, “I’ve been called worse things by better people.” President Trump’s recent characterization of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “meek” and “dishonest” almost seems mild compared to Nixon’s expletives cast upon his father.

Nixon grappled with America’s special relationship with Canada. At a White House dinner hosted in Trudeau’s honor, Nixon assured his audience that “We do have a very close relationship, we are close neighbors, and I think Canadians and Americans get along reasonably well, very well as a matter of fact.” But Nixon also blamed Canada for America’s economic woes, claiming that Ottawa was being uncooperative and unfair in its trade practices.

In response to Nixon’s new nationalism, Canada proposed a “Third Option” in which trade ties would be cultivated with other nations, thereby reducing dependency on the United States. Canada’s efforts to cultivate economic relations outside the American orbit were somewhat successful but both nation’s economies remained integrated in the years to come.

Interestingly, relations between Nixon and Pierre Trudeau were not always so impassioned. Though many observers at the time believed the Canadian-American relationship had reached an all-time low, it is said that Nixon and Trudeau actually liked one another. When Trudeau’s good friend and Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte was kidnapped and assassinated by the Front de libération du Québec in 1970, Nixon personally called the prime minister to express his condolences.

This cordiality extended to both sides. During a 1972 state visit to Ottawa, Nixon raised a toast to the then-4-month-old son of Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau. “Tonight we’ll dispense with the formalities. I’d like to toast the future prime minister of Canada: to Justin Pierre Trudeau.” The Canadian prime minister responded in kind, stating “he hoped his son Justin would have the grace and skill of the president.”

If Trump’s current railings against Justin Trudeau are disconcerting, they are by no means unprecedented in the history of Canadian-American relations. When analyzed from the perspective of years and decades, rather than weeks and days, it is clear that what most characterizes the Canada-United States relationship is the strong underlying bond of interconnectedness and friendship.

Janet Dorothy Larkin, of Orchard Park, is the author of “Overcoming Niagara: Canals, Commerce and Tourism in the Niagara-Great Lakes Borderland Region, 1792-1837.”

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