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Canada, US relations are strained

MONTREAL — Chalk up another victim to the coronavirus that has swept across the globe: The decades-old amity that tied Canada to the United States in cross-border marriages and commercial relationships, that deepened during World War II, that took the form of three landmark 20th century free-trade agreements, and that burst into full flower when Canada welcomed American jetliners and their passengers to Newfoundland after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

These new tensions — flaring now that fear of COVID-19 has gone viral — have swept away the welcome mat that Americans for generations have bound across to enter Canada for vacations, family visits and business — are a fresh example of the diminishment of American influence in the first quarter of the 21st century.

On the North American continent, the result is an unexpected and perhaps unprecedented case of social distancing.

True to the maxim of Canada’s Inuits that all threats come from the south, Andre Picard, a columnist in the Globe and Mail newspaper, riffed off the old adage that when the United States sneezes, Canada catches a cold.

“What happens when the U.S. coughs? When it coughs that dry hacking coronavirus cough?” he asked. “We’re about to find out.”

This spring, with neighboring New York State and Washington State considered hotbeds of the menacing virus and with Americans stocking up on firearms, the United States is at risk of losing its cultural and emotional most-favored-nation status here.

President Donald Trump’s swiftly changing views of the seriousness of the virus and the nation’s response to the COVID-19 threat have exacerbated concerns in Canada.

“Americans have been behind the curve and haven’t done a lot of testing,” said Christopher Kirkey, director of the Center for the Study of Canada at the State University of New York College at Plattsburgh. “So it is natural that people think Americans pose a threat. There is a lot of fear about this.”

To be sure, there have been squalls in the two countries’ relationships before. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper once noted that an American invasion of Canada during the War of 1812 “made Canada possible.”

Canada looked askance as American involvement in Vietnam deepened and were horrified when President Lyndon B. Johnson, meeting with Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson at Camp David in 1965, grabbed the Nobel Peace Prize winner and shook him while remonstrating that the Canadians’ critique of American war policies was unwelcome.

When, two years ago, Trump invoked “national security” to defend his decision to impose steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada, Chrystia Freeland, then Canada’s foreign minister, mocked the notion her country was a threat to the more powerful nation south of the border.

“I would just say to all of Canada’s American friends … seriously?”

Though deep ties of anti-Americanism swirl along with deep personal ties, the two countries have longstanding links.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who vacationed (and likely contracted polio) at Campobello, New Brunswick, traveled to Windsor, Ontario, in 1937. There, he assured Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King that the U.S., which had mounted repeated invasions of its neighbor, would defend Canada from foreign incursions.

These ties have physical form in the bridges that connect the two countries, particularly in the poignantly named Peace Bridge that connects Buffalo with Fort Erie, Ontario, and in the canals, locks, and dredged waterways of the 2,500-mile St. Lawerence Seaway that extends from the Atlantic to Lake Superior and was dedicated jointly by Queen Elizabeth II and President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959.

John F. Kennedy is remembered especially fondly here –where a downtown street is called “Avenue du President-Kennedy”–for a line Canadians revere: “Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends.” George W. Bush took it one step farther, calling the two countries “family.”

Michael Hawes, the director of Fulbright Canada, acknowledged that, as he put it, “This is a difficult moment in all relations” and suggested that “this may not be any worse than others.”

But this is not a relationship like any other — an undefended border a continent wide, with 150,000 automobiles during normal times daily traversing 119 border crossings, and with three-quarters of Canada’s exports headed to the United States.

And it is a time in the relationship like few others.

“It is a special moment in Canada, because the shift in the relationship’s tone has been so dramatic and so unwelcome, violating the special nature of the ties,” said D. Monroe Eagles, a Nova Scotian who teaches at the State University of Buffalo. “Things are worse now than they have been in a long time.”

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