When the United States celebrated its 150th birthday, Calvin Coolidge was president, Al Capone’s gangsters were running wild in Chicago, NBC was just being formed and Gene Tunney was girding to defeat Jack Dempsey. Generally it was a quiet, content country, not all that important in world affairs, not all that worried about war or depression.
On Saturday, Canada turns 150 in a different world, more quiet and contented than its neighbor to the south, about as influential in world affairs as the United States was in 1926, indeed very much like America was then: on the rise, admired globally, a little self-conscious, but overall a relatively uncontroversial force for good worldwide.
The United States has many natural advantages, but none so great as being planted beside Canada. In a landmark speech in Parliament in Ottawa during his first trip abroad, President John F. Kennedy delivered remarks that are revered here. “Geography has made us neighbors,” he said. “History has made us friends.”
That was a bookend to a speech Winston Churchill delivered 22 years earlier, in London in honor of former Canadian Prime Minister R.B. Bennett: “That long frontier from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, guarded only by neighborly respect and honorable obligations, is an example to every country and a pattern for the future of the world.”
Today Kennedy’s words are carved into the walls of the U.S. embassy in Ottawa and are a hardy perennial in U.S.-Canadian relations, cited by former Prime Ministers Pierre Trudeau in 1981 and Brian Mulroney 1984 and by U.S President Bill Clinton in Ottawa in 1995 and again in Washington two years later.
And the Churchill remarks are so vital to the Canadian psyche that when I spoke the other morning with Mulroney, who was prime minister from 1984 to 1993 and helped create the North American Free Trade Agreement, he quoted them word for word.
“The relationship between Canada and the United States is a model for the world, and that is why I worked on it for so long,” Mulroney said. “It’s very important that as we begin the NAFTA negotiations in the next few months the parties realize how vital and beneficial that relationship has been. It is the most productive and peaceful relationship between any two neighbors in world history. Both sides should celebrate that, and resist any attempt to diminish it.”
The country’s birthday — called Canada Day, and preceding the U.S.’s Independence Day by three days — is being marked by the sale of Canada Day body jewelry ($9.85 on Amazon), all manner of T-shirts (maple leafs are prominent), a splendid two-CD disc by Eleanor McCain (“True North,” a salute to songs such as “Hallelujah,” “A Case of You” and “Snowbird,” all written by Canadians) and books, including “The Colour of Canada” with stunning pictures and a poignant essay by Roy MacGregor (“Canada is surely the only 150-year-old country in the world that is still being discovered”).
Plus celebrations galore: The “Proud to be a Canadian” event in Dorchester, New Brunswick. The “150 Years Strong” celebration in Whycocomagh. Nova Scotia. The “ All Day, All Night Canada Day” festivities in Ilderton, Ontario. The “Birthday Bash 2017” in Whitewood, Saskatchewan. The “Tomahawk Canada Day Celebrations” in Tomahawk, Alberta.
But perhaps the most unusual commemoration is occurring in Milton, Massachusetts, where the 41st U.S. president was born in 1924 at 173 Adams St. The selectmen of that town proclaimed July 1 “George Herbert Walker Bush — Right Honorable Brian Mulroney-Canada Day.”
Like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had a summertime retreat at Campobello, Nova Scotia, Bush has a special affinity for Canada. “Can you imagine waking up every morning worried that your neighbors might invade at any minute? Or might send raiding parties? Or spies into your midst?” Bush wrote in an email for this column.
“Too many countries have lived with that fear off and on in their long histories. With Canada, that has never been the case. We trust each other. We work together. We root for each other. We breathe the same air, and share the same values.”
The son of a Montreal mother and a Massachusetts father, I am quite literally the product of the Canadian-American relationship. And, like any marriage, that relationship is complex, in part because Canada, with its two languages, is a far more complex nation than Americans generally realize.
“(Canada) is what it is because we built it together,” André Pratt, a Canadian senator and author, wrote in his introduction to “Legacy: How French Canadians Shaped North America,” published here last year, “and it will keep on growing in relative harmony ... only if we continue on our journey hand in hand, reaching out with those hands to the new Canadians joining us every day, and drawing on the knowledge and wisdom of the First Nations.”
Then there are the challenges in the Canadian-American relationship itself. President Lyndon Johnson once manhandled Lester Pearson after the prime minister criticized the American role in Vietnam — pinning Pearson against an outdoor railing at Camp David, twisting his shirt collar, even lifting him into the air before telling the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize winner, “You pissed on my rug!”
The two countries still are engaged in a dispute over softwood lumber that only lawyers understand and over which only lawyers profit. This spring the two countries sparred over milk prices. Then again, in 1859, an American farmer shot a pig owned by a Hudson’s Bay Company employee, prompting the Pig War, a conflict that does not win much mention in school curricula in either country.
“We had a few disagreements, although at age 93, I can’t remember them,” Bush said of Canada and Mulroney in his email. “But I could always trust he had my back. I think our friendship is symbolic of the friendship between our countries. We have each other’s back.”
We do have each other’s back, both in French and in English, and we also have that long, undefended border. Sometimes only the first two sentences of Kennedy’s remarks in Ottawa are remembered and quoted. Perhaps as we approach Canada Day we might recall the three sentences that follow:
Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder.
David M. Shribman, a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen, is executive editor of the Post-Gazette of Pittsburgh.