Sleeping with an Elephant

March 2017 3 057This is a photo of Abdullah Saleh, then President of Yemen, in Ottawa on the occasion of his Presidential visit to Canada. Sitting ramrod straight behind Saleh are female and male Royal Canadian Mounted Police, familiar icons of Canada’s peace, order and government values. In 1999, this moustached and stern man was supreme tribal leader of an authoritarian regime cum democracy. Now, Saleh is an outlaw and rebel in his own country.

As a vice-president with the energy company, Nexen Inc. (then CanadianOxy), I was responsible for working with the Canadian Government to organize Saleh’s State Visit to Canada.  At the time, CanadianOxy was one of Yemen’s most successful foreign investors, discovering and marketing a brand new crude called Masila Blend. Organizing the State visit was a complex task, requiring good will on all sides and a decent modicum of hope that this dictator would actually allow democratic elections in his country. In 1999, CanadianOxy was also operating in other emerging democracies—including Indonesia and Nigeria. It was an optimistic time – ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and pre-September 11th, 2001. It was a window of time when Canadians had an appetite to play the role of midwife to these political transformations, to the delivery of dignity to every human being wherever they lived in the world, including the right to elect their politicians.

March 2017 3 059Saleh and his 200-plus entourage landed their Yemenia plane in Ottawa and made their way, with much pomp and circumstance, to be officially received by Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson and her partner John Ralston Saul.  A State Dinner with Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his wife Aline would take place the next day. I’ll never forget the horror of seeing a six-foot high pile of guns shed by Saleh’s retinue at the doorway to Rideau Hall—AK47s, Kalashnikovs, handguns—stacked up in the halls of diplomacy of Canada, a peace-loving country more provoked by gun registries than the right to bear arms.

The visit included formalities in Ottawa, Montreal, and of course, Calgary, the home of Canadian energy companies. After a whirlwind tour, four days in duration, we waved goodbye to the Yemenia plane…on its way to Washington, D.C. We all knew, all along, that this was the real destination. The Yemeni President wanted to meet with the U.S. President, or at least Presidential decision-makers. The best path to Washington passed through Ottawa. We were the bridge.

Canada is a sovereign State. Yet, living next door to the United States, and integrated so closely into a North American economy, has impacted our sense of sovereignty…and I would argue, sometimes even our sense of dignity as a country. President Saleh wasn’t the first leader to like Canada because we could possibly provide access to the United States.

Just like a person, a sovereign state needs a distinct sense of status, intrinsic value, bearing and respect.  Don’t get me wrong: Canadians certainly hold our values dear, and they shape our constitution and our attitudes. At times, though, I find we are prone to viewing our political and economic decisions with a degree of interdependence, even dependency on America, that risks impinging on our own identity. For example, U.S. consumers are a massive and convenient market for Canadian manufacturers and farmers and energy producers, and quite understandably, we worry a lot about sustaining that access. Canadians recognize America’s military clout, and readily admit to dependence on our neighbour for security. Given our close proximity and interconnectedness, we often define ourselves in contrast to Americans: “Unlike Americans, we believe in universal access to healthcare and single tier medicine rather than a multi-tier system, don’t need to carry around handguns to feel safe, and have a different, although not perfect, relationship with our First Nations.”

Harold Innis Harold Innis, one of our country’s early and leading economists, grew up a farm east of Otterville Ontario, coincidentally, a contemporary and neighbour of my Grandfather Kennedy. Using the metrics of geography and economics, Innis helped shape Canadians’ understanding of our identity as citizens of a newly independent country. In The Fur Trade in Canada, published in 1930, Innis asserted Canada’s boundaries were determined by the fur trade, by our zealous pursuit of beavers to support an export economy. Canada’s economic reliance on exports of natural resources continues to this day.

NP238lazyboy-angle2Beaver called Lazy Boy by sculptor Nicola Prinsen, at Canada House Gallery, Banff

Innis also believed that the coast-to-coast structure of the fur trade led to a centralized model for Canada’s transportation, financial and other infrastructure. The United States had regional railways and local banks; Canada had national railways and banks. My father recalls his father and uncle travelling in 1922 to Wainwright, Alberta on the Canadian Pacific railway as part of the “harvest expedition”.  Fares were funded by the Canadian government.  A national railway, taking farmers from east to west, serving national interests by giving people work and getting grain crops harvested – it’s easy to find dignity in that.

Kennedy familyGrandfather and Grandmother Kennedy, with Ronald and Wallace, east of Otterville

One of my favourite books is Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner, set in the Cypress Hills in southern Saskatchewan where Stegner’s family homesteaded from 1914 to 1920.

51kM9JMRdaL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Wolf Willow, written through the eyes of Stegner as a young boy, describes how locals and First Nations perceived differences between Canadian red-coats and American blue-coats in the early decades of Canada’s Confederation:

“The important thing is the instant, compelling impressiveness of this man in the scarlet tunic. I believe I know, having felt it, the truest reason why the slim force of Mounted Police was so spectacularly successful, why its esprit de corps was so high and its prestige so great. I think I know how Law must have looked to Sioux and Blackfoot when the column of red coats rode westward in the summer of 1874.

Never was the dignity of the uniform more carefully cultivated, and rarely has the ceremonial quality of impartial law and order been more dramatically exploited. Since the middle of the 18th century the red coat of the British dragoons had meant, to Indian minds, a force that was non and sometimes anti-American. The contrast was triply effective now that the blue of the American cavalry had become an abomination to the Plains hostiles. One of the most visible aspects of the international boundary was that it was a color line: blue below, red above, blue for treachery and unkept promises, red for protection and the straight tongue. That is not quite the way a scrupulous historian would report it, for if Canada had been settled first, and the American West had remained empty, the situation might well have been reversed. Certainly Canada had its own difficulties with the tribes when the buffalo disappeared and the crisis came on; and though its treaty system was better considered and its treaties better kept than the American, still Canada in red coats hunted down its hostiles in 1885 just as the bluecoated Long Knives had used to do. But given the historical context, red meant to an Indian in the 1870’s friendship and protection, and it is to the honor of an almost over publicized force that having dramatized in scarlet the righteousness of the law it represented, it lived up to the dramatization.”

Canada is now 150 years old, still relatively young for a nation, with borders more defined by beaver trap lines then men bearing guns. Canadians have a unique character, built on a historical need to survive, together, in a harsh frontier. We’re an open country, recognized for our ability to invite and integrate many cultures. And, yet, from time to time, we sense a need to hold a little tighter to our identity as Canadians— to stand on guard against anyone who tries to make our decisions or force values on us….or otherwise tramples on our dignity.  In 2017, we’re feeling that strong tug, again, to define ourselves in relation to our neighbour, the United States.

Let’s look at this relationship through the eyes of dignity.

We can make space for mutual respect in our relationship, and self-respect. That doesn’t mean denying our differences. There are definitely some regions in the U.S. that respect Canada’s gay marriage and health care, and then there are others who call us socialist commies. From the Canadian side, there is respect for America’s’ competitiveness and military power, and disdain for U.S. politics, their arrogance, their gun laws.

We can aspire to a graceful, neighbourly, maybe even a sibling relationship with the United States. Why not, the U.S., our “big buddy”. We’re inextricably linked. We are both relatively young countries and our relationship is grounded in the same geography; the first peoples of this land did not see a boundary along the 49th parallel, they saw one big turtle island with a plethora of personalities in its vast diversity of landscape and ecosystems. The United States needs Canada, and Canada needs the United States. A shared sense of North American identity is valuable to both countries and we share a vast landmass inhabited by millions of people, many related.

3686The campaign celebrates key moments and people that have helped define Canada and what it can mean to ‘Be Nice’. – Roots Canada

Our current iteration of Canada and its identity, and the current iteration of the United States and its identity, are at an interesting impasse. As Canadians, we aren’t a country known for its provocation—but we pride ourselves on being tough and self-righteous and protective in the name of justice, and we celebrate our RCMP and WW1 and WW2 European battles in this frame. Of course, as we age, we recognize the nuances and the lack of sustainability of a two-dimensional identity. Canada the nice and Canada the kind is being questioned by our history with our First Nations.

As Canada grows into a more mature country, we need to consider our maturing relationship with our rather large bedfellow, the United States. In 1969, Pierre Trudeau famously said having America as a neighbour was like sleeping with an elephant:

Americans should never underestimate the constant pressure on Canada which the mere presence of the United States has produced. We’re different people from you and we’re different people because of you. Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt. It should not therefore be expected that this kind of nation, this Canada, should project itself as a mirror image of the United States.” (National Press Club, Washington).

President_Nixon_with_Prime_Minister_Trudeau_of_Canada_-_NARA_-_194762.tifAmerican President Richard Nixon and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, in Ottawa, 1972

In 1982, Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood reinforced this mirror image, describing the Canada-US border as a “one-way mirror: We see you but you can’t see us.” Atwood also criticized Canadians for becoming addicted to the one-way mirror of the Canadian-American border, neglecting that other mirror, their own culture.

As we grow into equality with our slightly older and more aggressive brother, there are sure to be situations that could provoke drama. Right now, there is a lot of flag-waving and “us vs. them” language as we move  into significant trade negotiations; our neighbour, the U.S., is asking us to do our part in a bigger way in the guardianship of the world; Americans are taking a different stance than us on refugees, and considering the size and openness of our shared border, this needs to be executed well.

We are indoctrinated to believe that relationships are full of drama; in fact we have entire industries built up around soap operas and reality television, and our news and history books reinforce a continual story of good vs bad, stronger and weaker, the conqueror and the vanquished. These opposing forces feed competition and a fear of being left behind, whether you are the bullied or the bully, with someone just waiting to take your spot. A healthy relationship, what I’m calling graceful, is made up of shared power, mutuality and belonging, and inherent value or dignity.

Shared power is fed by free expression, by being whom and what you are, and not by being what you think you should be or a limited version of yourself. Belonging is fueled by connection, by understanding and forgiving ignorance and transcending differences.  Finally, dignity is the simple recognition that despite any differences, there is an unconditional value to human beings as individuals, and collectively, including as citizens of a country. This value is honoured when we allow people and nations to have their own power, when we don’t try to solve all their problems for them, when we mind our own business as well as we do others.

In super-simplified terms, Canadians could potentially benefit from a more explicit sense of self and Americans a more explicit sense of other. By working together we expand the capacity of our citizens to continue the still young legacy of leading in the world.

The end of the drama in the relationship between Canada and our rather large bedfellow is going to take some trust—trusting ourselves, our neighbours and the bigger picture. Yes, it’s a big ask, but an ask with an even bigger payoff in terms of healthy relationships for citizens of both countries.

Donna Kennedy-Glans, July 27th, 2017


2 thoughts on “Sleeping with an Elephant

  1. A well-written, thought-provoking, article! As an American, I would only like to emphasize the difference between America (the country), and Americans (individuals) who may not necessarily take the same stance as ‘America’ on refugees, gay marriage, gun laws, trade, to name a few issues you mention.

    1. Yes, I agree! Yet when we are at the NAFTA and other trade tables, we speak as countries. Challenging to reconcile this country vs. citizen perspective. Thanks for your feedback on this post. I’m using this blog spot as a way to test the idea of exploring these questions – deepen the dialogue and showcase beyond polarity approaches that do work.

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