Why Canada puts a finger on the scale

Recently, when it was announced that NBC was pulling off the air the only Canadian show on United States network television, the successful late night comedy program ''SCTV,'' a Canadian colleague suggested that we should retaliate and pull a popular US network show off Canadian television. Of course, the fact that American programming accounts for about half of Canadian network offerings made the suggestion frankly ludicrous, and we had a good laugh.

The underlying Canadian trade imbalance in cultural products (despite the odd Academy Award-winning National Film Board film!) is, on the other hand, no laughing matter. It has preoccupied Canadian legislatures since the '30, and policies adopted to shelter what cultural industry we have annoy some US businessmen and legislators to this day.

Canadians are preoccupied with defending their economic and political as well as cultural sovereignty quite simply because the US is 10 times as populous and powerful. The historic free flow of ideas, technology, goods, and services across the border is to be cherished. But in an unbalanced relationship, occasionally Canada has had to put a finger on the scale to keep from being completely overbalanced.

The asymmetry of the Canada-US relationship is subsumed in interesting ways on both sides, even by senior members of this administration. Let me quote a well-known Canadian television commentator, Peter Trueman, editorializing following a breakfast he and several other Canadian journalists had with Secretary of State Shultz during his recent visit to Ottawa:

''He (Shultz) suggested that if good relations were all important, and one party or the other glossed over its grievances, the relationship is undermined dangerously. (Shultz) said it was just like the give and take between union and management. I was tempted to ask which role Canada played in his analogy, the workers or the bosses. But I didn't. I know he didn't mean it that way, and besides, I already knew the answer. One of the root causes of the problem between Canada and the US is that men like Mr. Shultz carefully phrase their public utterances to convey the impression that Canada and the US are equals. They do this because they are decent fellows who don't want to offend our nationalistic sensibilities. But the two countries aren't equal - hence the fears we have about our cultural, economic, and political independence, and our shrillness in defending it.''

This is a neat and economical statement of the dilemmas inherent in sharing a continental bed with a giant. We are equals in the sense that we are each sovereign nations. But our interests are not determined by a symmetry in relative dependence on the other.

Let me explain. The Canada-US relationship is determined by what goes back and forth across the border and by the extent of the stake we have in each other. It is very difficult to establish a hierarchy for these things. It is sufficient to underline that we are each other's most important trading partner, and it is the most intense and complex relationship between any two countries in the world.

Any relationship is a function of interdependency and, for each partner, is a mixture of convenience and vulnerability, of benefits and of costs. For Canada this is the case for our reliance on access to the huge American market. Somewhere around 20 cents out of every dollar earned in Canada comes from exports to the US. Americans to some extent rely on Canada as a safe and relatively familiar place to invest and as a stable secondary market. Our stability and friendship are also of strategic interest to the US.

There is a pure theory, of course, that the removal of all barriers to any flow of anything across the border would permit the most efficient rationalization of effort between nations which would make such concerns obsolete. However, this thesis would have to assume that the goals and practices of the two societies were essentially the same. In many basic ways, they are. But in just as many they are not.

We have a national health program, the US does not. US taxes are, in many instances, lower than ours. We have more prominent government intervention. The US is more ideological about the world. We use electric kettles. The US federal system gives less power to the states than ours does to the provinces. We recognize two official languages in the federal government, and so on.

In the end, our major differences are due simply to the fact that we are different countries. It is a fact which seems more important some decades than other. In the last 10 years this perception has become more apparent and more vivid and increasingly accepted as being a normal and proper optic from which to view the relationship.

It is my impression that for some years after an era of particularly close cooperation, we began to think almost exclusively about what we had in common. Some in the smaller society even longed to be absorbed into the more glamorous and exciting life of the larger. We avoided acknowledging a conflict in respective interests whenever possible and we certainly avoided it whenever possible in public.

It was a strategy which probably worked too well. It meant that when Canadians, as a matter of national interest, began to differentiate their goals from those of the US, as a matter of policy, there was confusion in the US. ''If you're just like us, why do you behave differently?''

Today, we are more confident about our ability to deal with the US on the basis of that sense of difference than we were, say, 10 years ago.

The jolt that made us more assertive came in 1971 when Richard Nixon surprised the Canadian government by taking a shocking set of policy decisions with regard to American imports which left Canadians feeling particularly vulnerable. Without prior consultation, the US administration slapped a surcharge on all imports from anywhere. As the biggest exporter to the US by far , Canada stood to be devastated by this move. As a country chronically in current account deficit with the US, we considered the decision to be almost as irrational as it was unfair. But it was a great lesson: All countries act out of self-interest, and their view of their self-interest could be unpredictable. We needed to reduce our vulnerability to that fact.

In 1972 we adopted a policy called the ''third option.'' In doing so we decided that seeking closer, more linked institutional relations with the US would not be in Canadian interests. Rather, the policy sought to widen markets abroad and favored domestically a lessening of our vulnerability via the putting into place of certain instruments at home: a screening process for foreign investment; a greater Canadian role in economic decisions in our vital energy sector; a viable framework for Canadian cultural expression, particularly in broadcasting and publishing. No one, I think, would argue that the specific programs were perfectly conceived or administered. But few Canadians would argue for the complete undoing of this basic structure. These policy instruments in the main are Canadian counterweights to decisionmaking - sometimes arbitrary decisionmaking - by an immensely more powerful friend. They have strengthened the national confidence, in the sense that we have more leverage over events than before.

Lately, this self-confidence has been evident in the way in which we have successfully fought off, often with the administration's help, potentially damaging congressional initiatives - aimed at Canadian trucking, for example, or uranium exports.

If the relationship is better, and consequently less newsworthy than it was two years ago, it is perhaps because on both sides we are more comfortable with our differences - the US administration with Canadian policies designed to give us some leverage over our future - the Canadian government with US policies geared singlemindedly to industrial recovery. Above all, we are managing bilateral issues. This is epitomized by Secretary Shultz's remark to the reporters about the give and take between union and management. Both sides are committed to preventing a strike.

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