John Hughes

America's best (and most boring) neighbor: Canada

Canadians have much to be grateful for, including little attention from the US.

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Unlike America’s border with its southern neighbor, the border with its northern neighbor is calm and orderly.

As we drove into western Canada, the lone border agent had only three questions:

Were we carrying firearms? “No.”

Were we carrying drugs? “No.”

Were we carrying more than $10,000 in foreign currency? “Alas, no.”

Then she said with a smile: “Welcome to Canada.”

I’ve always had a soft spot for Canada and Canadians. When I was a foreign correspondent, I generally touched base with Canadian diplomats in whatever country I was writing about. They were smart, well informed, and, without the spotlight that American and British diplomats had on them, were often able to develop sources and insights not available to others.

In international affairs, Canada has usually had a moderate voice and played a constructive role. It has worked with United Nations peacekeeping and humanitarian projects and has recently hosted the Group of Eight and Group of 20 meetings.

Canada has sent its young men to just wars, and with the same values as the US has usually been helpful to major US international aims, though not subservient and certainly not to be taken for granted.

At home, Canada has been able to manage the tension between English and French-speaking citizens. London, Ontario, has an international airport and British-sounding street names like Trafalgar and Pall Mall. In 1838, a British military garrison was installed to thwart a feared American invasion.

Meanwhile, set foot in the street cafes of the old city in Montreal and you might as well be in Paris.

Canadians do face a heavy tax load, including sales taxes of 13 percent on a staggering array of services from haircuts to funeral services.

Gasoline can run as much as $5 a gallon in certain parts of the country, pricey enough that Canadians traversing the continent sometimes dip down to drive through the US. A US border agent told me that some Canadians drive 50 miles to cross the border and fill up their gas tanks on the American side.

The Canadian dollar, once at a miserable rate of exchange, is now on a par with the US dollar. Canadians enjoy national medical coverage, although there is debate about its efficiency.

Canadians have much to be grateful for.

Their national highways are wide and well surfaced, in striking contrast to the neglected state of many highways in the US. They have an abundance of natural resources: forests, water, fossil fuels, minerals, and endless tidy crop-
producing farms. They have a network of power-producing nuclear plants and export oil, natural gas, timber, and grains.

Some Americans dismiss all this stability as boring. Years ago, when George Shultz became US secretary of State, he said the first two countries he would visit would be Mexico and Canada because with their long common borders with the US, they were the two most important. The State Department press corps is usually eager to travel with the secretary, but as Mr. Shultz’s press spokesman then, I heard groans from my newspaper colleagues about the potentially boring visit to Canada. After the trip, my good pal Bernie Kalb, then a TV correspondent, complained that he never got a single Canadian story on the air.

In later years, when I was teaching a class of college students, I invited a prominent Canadian journalist to talk about US-Canadian relations. He commented that the US press gave very little coverage to Canadian affairs.

My embarrassed students offered some ideas to redress the situation. Our guest reacted with mock horror. The last thing Canadians needed, he said, was more attention from the US. Boring, Canada may seem to some. But it is the best neighbor the US could have.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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Related: American visits to Canada hit 36-year low

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