Shirley Day-Comish stares out from her kitchen window, overlooking the Halifax harbor, and ponders the friendship she forged with a Philadelphia grandmother in the days following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"They are bonds for life," she says now, recalling the three days in which she housed the matriarch and four American family members who were stranded in the eastern Canadian city. "There were no barriers between us as Canadians and Americans during that time. We all were drawn together in crisis, and living from the heart."
Ms. Day-Comish was one of hundreds of Canadian families honored by President Bush Wednesday for sheltering more than 7,000 passengers from 44 planes that were grounded in Nova Scotia in the aftermath of the attacks in New York and Washington.
Mr. Bush's Canada visit was billed as an effort to improve ties that have frayed, particularly over Canada's refusal to send troops to Iraq. But the warm feelings symbolized by Nova Scotians like Day-Comish - and a new poll that shows 85 percent of Canadians have positive views of their US neighbors - show a popular bond reemerging between the two countries despite often contentious policy differences.
Wednesday's speech at Pier 21, Canada's equivalent of New York's Ellis Island, in Halifax concluded two days of a tour that marked Bush's first official state visit to Canada - and the first by a US president since Bill Clinton's visit in 1995. Relations have been cool since the president took office in 2001. His first official international visit was to Mexico, which was seen as a snub to many Canadians. Prime Minister Paul Martin, elected earlier this year, has vowed to strengthen ties that had deteriorated under his predecessor, Jean Chrétien.
During his speech Wednesday, Bush said he was happy to be "among friends." He said: "I am here to reaffirm America's enduring ties to your country," and thanked Canadians like Day-Comish for their 9/11 hosipitality during America's "time of need."
Topping Bush's two-day agenda was trade - Canada and the US are the world's two largest trading partners. Both sides are at loggerheads over US-imposed tariffs on softwood lumber and a ban on Canadian cattle following the discovery of a lone case of mad-cow disease in Alberta in 2003. Bush vowed to push to have the ban on beef lifted - and even ate an Alberta beef steak Tuesday to show his support. "I'm still standing," he said to laughter during Wednesday's speech.
The two leaders also spoke about continuing joint antiterror efforts, including increased border security, and Bush sought cooperation from Canada on a North American missile-defense shield.
While protests surrounding Wednesday's ceremony highlight the sometimes critical view Canadians have of American foreign policy - 80 percent of Canadians opposed the war in Iraq - a poll released this week shows that Canadians are tired of being labeled anti-American. The poll was commissioned by Friends of America, a nonprofit coalition based in Toronto and formed in 2002 that is intent on repairing strained bilateral relations.
Certainly Day-Comish counts herself among those who feel good about their southern neighbors. She says the experience three years ago has altered her perception of Americans in subtle ways. "When I used to travel in the US, I often felt that Americans were looking down on us as Canadians - that they were so arrogant and proud," she says. "Now, I realize that beneath a more aggressive exterior, these are people with all the same compassion, same needs, and desires as our own."
She says that during the time the two families spent talking over shared meals of pizza, burgers, and seafood, she learned to separate her views on American foreign policy from her perceptions of ordinary Americans.
The cross-border friendship endures. Day-Comish says she was stunned by the Philadelphia family's returned generosity - Christmas gifts that have included crystal, tablecloths, and chocolates. The two families regularly e-mail each other. And she expects the friendship will last a lifetime. "I might not ever see them for 20 years but I know that if I went to Philadelphia, I would be welcome in their hearts," she says.
Still, not all Nova Scotians were happy about Bush's arrival. Anne Derrick, a prominent, left-leaning Halifax lawyer who also took in an American family following the attacks, told the local media that the president isn't welcome in her home town. "I don't like [that] Halifax and Halifax residents [are] being used as a photo opportunity for a world leader who has blood on his hands and desperately needs any good international press he can get,'' she said.
Day-Comish admits she's somewhat disappointed that she wasn't invited to attend Wednesday's event. But she's also upset that some Canadians are using the ceremony to protest the war in Iraq. "This is not the forum for it. What President Bush is doing is positive and we should celebrate today."