Three-quarters of a century ago, a 27-year-old from a Montreal mobster family broke into the National Hockey League. Eddie Johnston, a Bruins goalie for a decade beginning in 1962, grew up moving easily across the border, recognizing that his native country was the capital of hockey but that the United States was where the money, fame, and opportunity was. He was a Canadian, but he was beloved by the Gallery Gods of the old Boston Garden, and he loved them back.
“We Canadians loved our country but we loved the United States, too,” says Johnston, now 84 and until recently a familiar figure at border control. “The border was always open and the love flowed both ways. It was a great thing and a great time.‘'
Suddenly, though, the love has stopped flowing, at least from the Canadian side. Not in Johnston’s lifetime — not in more than a century — have Canadians felt such rancor, resentment, and revulsion toward their neighbors to the south.
Ties of family, business, and friendship have been the principal elements of the Canadian-American relationship for decades. Links between the Bay State and Canada have been especially intimate; I’m the son of a Massachusetts father and a Montreal mother, a particularly familiar combination in Quebec. Canada is by far Massachusetts’ biggest trading partner. But today these US-Canada ties are all in tatters. And they probably won’t be restored until both the Trump administration and the coronavirus threat disappear.
Canadian resentment of the United States has always smoldered beneath the surface of such a one-sided power relationship, but it has seldom burst into flames. It caught fire this month, however, when President Trump slapped a 10 percent tariff on imported Canadian aluminum and rekindled his administration’s talk that Canada, with 23,000 active soldiers in its army and without nuclear weapons, is a national security threat to the United States, which possesses 6,800 nuclear warheads, an army of 472,000 troops, and a military budget 33 times as large as Canada’s.
National security concerns about Canada? Chrystia Freeland, the deputy prime minister and heir apparent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is incredulous. “Canadian aluminum does not undermine US national security,” she says. “Canadian aluminum strengthens US national security and has done so for decades through unparalleled co-operation between our two countries.” Freeland says Canada would retaliate with tariffs of its own, perhaps on washing machines, refrigerators, and golf clubs made in the United States.
Trump’s declaration that Canada is “taking advantage of us, as usual” has only fed Canadian indignation that began with the president’s earlier tariff threats and his repeated dismissals of Trudeau, whom he has called “two-faced” and “very dishonest and weak.” That pique grew deeper with fears that the rampant spread of the coronavirus in the United States made an open 5,525-mile border — the longest in the world — a danger to public health in Canada. (The United States has had about twice as many COVID-19 deaths per capita as Canada has.) A Nanos Research survey for the Globe and Mail newspaper last month showed that 81 percent of Canadians believe the border, closed since March to all but essential workers, should be shuttered indefinitely. In ordinary times 150,000 people traverse 119 crossings between the two countries each day.
Scholars on both sides of the border believe it will take a change in Washington to restore amity between the two countries.
“Trump is fundamentally driven by a core belief that America’s engagement in the world — and this includes Canada — is far too expansive and expensive,” says Christopher Kirkey, director of the Center for the Study of Canada at the State University of New York College at Plattsburgh.
D. Monroe Eagles, a University at Buffalo political scientist who is the president of the International Council for Canadian Studies, adds: “This relationship is fixable. It is way too important to both countries — and it’s the top priority in Canada by a long shot. It’s a bumpy road right now, but the US is on a bumpy road right now in all its international relations.”
From the other side of the 49th parallel, the prospect of an administration led by former Vice President Joe Biden raises some hopes — but Canadians still wonder how quickly American protectionism will vanish and the old relationship might return.
“We will need confirmation [Biden’s] program of US economic restoration will be future-looking and inclusive of partners, especially Canada of course, and not the erratic ‘America First’ of Trump that is backward-looking, protectionist, and destructive,” says Jeremy K.B. Kinsman, who has served as Canada’s ambassador to Great Britain, Russia, Italy, and the European Community.
Over the years there have been several high spots in the two countries’ relations. Franklin Delano Roosevelt traveled to Kingston, Ontario, in 1938 to greet Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and to offer a security pledge to Canada that endures to this day. Visits between the nations’ two leaders inevitably include a mention of John F. Kennedy’s remark in Ottawa in 1961: “Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends.” Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was so close to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush that he delivered eulogies at both men’s funerals.
There have been tensions, too. Former Governor General Vincent Massey, a Canadian diplomat who served as British King George VI’s representative there, wrote in 1948 that relations between Canada and the United States have “suffered grievously from the effects of rhetoric” — mostly from presidents and prime ministers with their own egos and their own agendas.
Kennedy had disdain for Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Lyndon B. Johnson was so angry at Lester B. Pearson’s critique of his Vietnam policy that he physically shook him at Camp David. Richard Nixon regarded the current prime minister’s father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, as an “asshole,’' prompting Trudeau to say, “I’ve been called worse things by better people,” a riposte that won particular favor in Canada.
But though leaders have squabbled, the peoples of the two countries rarely have. “We are not in the same boat,” Prime Minister Arthur Meighen said in a 1937 speech, “but we are pretty much in the same waters.”
Today the waters are troubled, and the bridges across them are closed, figuratively and, to all but essential travelers, literally. It makes Eddie Johnston sad, though the man who made 12,375 saves in his years in Bruins black and gold still believes this relationship can be saved. “We can do better,” he says, “and in time we will.”
David Shribman, former Washington bureau chief for the Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and scholar-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon University.