If you were a famous Canadian who had long contemplated becoming an American, would it be a good idea to make your move in the year 2003? Or would it be the dumbest and most insensitive notion that ever entered your head?
Peter Jennings of ABC News, the best-known Canadian in the United States, recently acquired U.S. citizenship after working in American television for nearly four decades. That's hardly unusual. In normal times, it would be difficult to imagine a fellow Canadian objecting to his choice.
But these aren't normal times. Relations between Canada and the United States are worse than at any moment since the War of 1812, when their side set fire to what is now Toronto and our side set fire to what is now the White House.
In this poisoned environment, Jennings' decision sends the worst possible signal about his attitude to Canada. It seems to say that he doesn't much care. From a journalist of his reputation, we should expect better than that. This is a year when we badly need articulate voices to make Canada's case, or at least to demonstrate that Canadians know there's a situation we must fix.
The Americans believe, rightly, that Canada doesn't take the war on terrorism seriously enough. And the Americans can hear, in the utterances of certain Canadians, particularly over Iraq, a vulgar and vicious anti-Americanism -- the kind of thing Americans might have ignored five years ago but now consider a serious affront.
Last February they took it seriously when Carolyn Parrish, a Liberal MP, said: "Damn Americans ... I hate those bastards."
And was not punished.
Apologizing, she said she was speaking in private. That made it worse, implying that her anti-Americanism was spontaneous, uttered in a burst of total honesty. It didn't help that she added: "My comments do not reflect my personal opinion of the American people." (Maybe they just reflect her ideological opinion?) Then John Manley made everything worse still by saying MPs should exercise "discretion in what they say." In other words, hating the Americans is fine; just don't say it when someone's listening.
This was typical of the ham-fisted style of Jean Chretien's government, which turns every dispute into a source of anger and resentment. As Premier Pat Binns of P.E.I said the other day, in a dazzling understatement, "I think there have been mistakes made by Ottawa over the last year or so in terms of how we get along with our neighbour."
Washington apparently sees Chretien as the main source of friction. Our TV news programs now carry pathetic little items speculating that possibly, with luck, the American President might be persuaded to have a brief meeting with our Prime Minister. It's obvious George W. Bush would rather just wait out Chretien's time in office. But there's no sign that Paul Martin is preparing a more intelligent approach to the United States. If he has a plan he's keeping it secret, like most of his policies.
The ugly truth is that no one living today has ever seen U.S.-Canadian relations so damaged, at every level. In the last year Americans have booed our anthem at hockey games and made endless jokes about Canada. Dave Letterman considers Canada one big, cold source of comedy. Ben Stein, the actor-quizmaster, dislikes us so much that, in the current American Spectator, he describes meeting a tiresome left-wing American liberal and contemplates subsidizing her resettlement in Canada. Even that ultimate American liberal, Garrison Keillor, makes anti-Canada jokes to get easy laughs from his left-wing PBS audiences.
Americans think that either we or our cows are diseased; they believe our lumber barons benefit from unfairly low fees on government land; they know the Mayor of Toronto is a hysterical nut; and they're leery of Canada's new approach to marijuana laws and same-sex marriage. For whatever reasons, many of the American tourists we count on are not among us this year.
Has Jennings noticed none of this? Does he read all that news in a trance? He's been contemplating American citizenship for a decade, he says. Why couldn't he have put it off another couple of years?
Like most Canadians, I have nothing against switch-hitters. Some of my favourite human beings are people who began life as citizens of other nations but made (to my delight) the move to Canada. And, as is fairly well known, our beloved founder, Conrad Black, not long ago abandoned Canada for Britain on his way to the House of Lords; he was the only living Canadian who wanted to be in the House of Lords, and I was glad for him that he achieved this wish, eccentric as it may have been.
And Jennings' motives for acquiring U.S. citizenship sound reasonable enough. America has been good to him; it's his home for most of the year; he admires its history and government. Besides, he'll retain Canadian citizenship as well as his farm near Ottawa and will never forget his roots, etc., etc.
His motives aren't in question. But his timing is calamitously stupid.