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Canada-U.S. Issues in a Time of American Upheaval: A View from the Ground (ie: a Canuck in New York City)

September 30, 2008

Notwithstanding Canadian pretensions to remain distinguished and distinct from America, we spend a lot of time worrying if our friends south of the border are paying attention to “our” issues, those policies that impact “our” economy and interests.

This opinion piece by the Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson and this recent CTV story on the U.S. Presidential race are case and point. Both story headlines ask: “Who would be best for Canada: McCain or Obama?” The maneuvering thereafter is familiar. The articles begin by noting how fond Canadians are of Democratic hopeful Barack Obama — usually measured by various opinion polls or the gushing of our politicians — and proceed to show the folly of that preference by lining up various “experts” who tell us that Democrats are more likely to support protectionism, erect barriers to trade, and beat up on the Canadian energy sector; these things will hurt us, the experts say.

My purpose here is not to debate the line taken by the Globe or CTV — who is better for Canada — but rather, ask if this is even a worthwhile question to pose given the current state of affairs in the United States: political uncertainty, economic upheaval and chaotic, complex and unpredictable foreign endeavours.

The anxiety at street level is, at times, palpable. Like many folks in New York City, this Canadian today watched in disbelief (glued to a closed captioned TV on my university campus with cadres of gathering of students) as the U.S. House of Representatives voted down the $700 billion bailout , causing a massive plunge in the stock market and increasing concerns about liquidity and credit for the broader U.S. economy.

And then there are serious political challenges. The next U.S. administration as noted by Fareed Zakaria will face challenges “unlike any in recent memory”: costly and complex military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; an unstable and fledgling new regime in Pakistan; and emerging concerns with increasingly defiant countries like Iran, Russia and Venezuela.

With all this said, I wonder if the Canadian punditocracy has gone astray in its preoccupation with the “who is better for us?” debate. Rather, we should be tackling a much more difficult challenge: how to ensure Canadian issues remain, even in a minimal sense, on the U.S. political radar in the months and years ahead. The climate in the United States is not one conducive to outward gaze, but self-reflection, examination and deep reform. Engaging American politicians on Canada-U.S. issues will be more difficult today than any time in decades.

Of course, I have no in-depth prescriptions at this time, but a modest proposal might be that lending a helping hand in these trying times, economically or politically, is a more effective strategy than asking the next President: so, what can you do for me?

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