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Last Updated: Friday, 16 December 2005, 08:48 GMT
US card enters Canada's election
By Lee Carter
BBC News, Toronto

For a Canadian prime minister who took office two years ago promising to repair Canada-US relations, Paul Martin seems to have rather enthusiastically thrown himself into a spat with his southern neighbour, as he campaigns for the 23 January election.

The war of words between the two countries has suddenly made Canada-US relations a leading issue in a campaign previously dominated by differences of opinion over sales tax and finding ways to reform the public health system.

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin visits sawmill
Paul Martin said Canada would not let itself be dictated to
The touch paper to the dispute was lit last Tuesday by the US ambassador to Canada, who in a clear reference to Mr Martin and his Liberal Party, warned Canadian politicians against making his country a target during the campaign.

Mr Martin and his Liberal predecessor, Jean Chretien, have in fact been taking sideswipes at the Bush administration for some time.

Mr Chretien opposed the US-led war in Iraq and hit a diplomatic low when one of his senior advisers was overheard referring to President Bush as "a moron".

Most of Mr Martin's anger and frustration has been reserved for a trade dispute with the US over timber from western Canada.

The US has been imposing tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber saying it is unfairly subsidised. Canada claims that Washington is not respecting trade panel decisions under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

'Slippery slope'

But the Canadian prime minister has also been taking the US to task on other issues.

We are emerging as an independent country that expresses its sovereignty to a remarkable degree
Michael Adams
president of polling firm Environics
At the beginning of 2005, Mr Martin took Washington by surprise by deciding not to participate in President Bush's ballistic missile defence plan after giving signals to the White House that he would.

The outgoing US ambassador said he was "stunned" by the decision.

More recently, Mr Martin took a clear swipe at the US in a speech he gave at the UN climate change conference in Montreal.

He chided the US for not listening to what he called a "global conscience" on the issue of greenhouse gas emissions.

It clearly all became too much for the new US Ambassador, David Wilkins.

In language believed to have been approved by the White House, he shot back before those gathered at the Ottawa luncheon last Tuesday.

I am not going to be dictated to as to the subjects I should raise
Paul Martin
Canadian PM
"It may be smart election-year politics to thump your chest and constantly criticise your friend and number one trading partner but it is a slippery slope," he warned.

The following day, against the backdrop of a struggling British Columbia sawmill plant, Mr Martin remained defiant.

"I am going to deal with issues that are important to the Canadian people as they arise and I will call it as I see it," he said.

"I am not going to be dictated to as to the subjects I should raise. I will make sure that Canada speaks with an independent voice."

'Dumb idea'

Somewhat surprisingly, Mr Martin's political opponents on the election trail have been muted in their criticism of the Liberal leader.

Canadian election rivals Stephen Harper (L) and Paul Martin speak before debate
Mr Martin's main rival, Stephen Harper (l), has been muted about the row
The opposition Conservative leader, Stephen Harper, said that he did not think foreign ambassadors "should be expressing their views or intervening in an election campaign".

He did, however, liken Mr Martin to "the kid who was always name-calling from a safe distance".

The leader of the left-wing New Democrats, Jack Layton, dismissed Mr Martin's criticisms of the US as "shameless posturing".

Paul Wells, a senior political columnist for Canada's weekly news magazine Maclean's, agrees.

He says with Mr Martin fighting for re-election after his government was brought down in a vote of no-confidence, he is behaving like a politician with his back to the wall.

"He's allowed his worst instincts to come to the fore and he's basically pandered to anti-American sentiment more energetically than any politician I can remember," he adds.

Mr Wells says the US is still the country's most influential role model and that Mr Martin's anti-US rhetoric could damage Canada's relations with the White House.

The problem is Mr Bush is there until January 2009 so this is an administration that any Canadian government has to deal with
Reg Stuart
Mount St Vincent University
"My honest opinion is that this is one of the stupidest things he could possibly do. We do have to get along with these people - $1bn of goods and services are traded across the border every day," he says.

"It's really dumb to lecture them at a global forum on global warming, when Canada has been notoriously far more profligate in its greenhouse gas emissions than the United States. That's simple hypocrisy and the Americans are smart enough to know that."

Nevertheless, Mr Wells says that the anti-American card is always popular with Canadian voters. He notes that tracking polls seem to suggest that Mr Martin's popularity has risen since the US ambassador made his comments.


Canada's most famous Liberal Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, once said to an American audience: "Living next to you is like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt."

The country has a long history of political anti-US sentiment. But many analysts think that the chilly relations have been particularly heightened since George Bush became US president in 2000.

One of them is Reg Stuart, a professor of history and politics at Mount St Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who says much of it is about Mr Bush.

"He's as unpopular here as he is in Europe. I don't think it reflects any dislike of the American people."

Mr Stuart believes that while Mr Martin may be able to score points on the campaign trail, his angry rhetoric may actually be losing any influence he had with the current US administration.

"The problem is Mr Bush is there until January 2009 so this is an administration that any Canadian government has to deal with. The risk is that they'll just kind of tune out."

But others see Canada's divergence from the US as a welcome coming of age for a country that has long lived in the shadow of its southern neighbour.

Michael Adams is the president of the polling firm Environics. He says, increasingly, Canadians are demanding that their politicians defend national interests.

"We were once a colony of Britain. We were once a colony of France. In mentality, perhaps, we became a colony of the United States. But in fact we are emerging as an independent country that expresses its sovereignty to a remarkable degree."

It seems all the politicians on the campaign trail, to a larger or lesser degree, accept that many Canadians echo those sentiments. But they also realise that it should come as no surprise that Washington is unlikely to feel the same way.

Canadian election gamble
29 Nov 05 |  Americas
Q&A: Canada's political crisis
29 Nov 05 |  Americas
Canada-US war of words escalates
15 Dec 05 |  Americas

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