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1961: John F. Kennedy and wife Jackie visit Ottawa

He is the most important leader in the world. And even though the country may not always like what they hear, when the president of the United States comes to Ottawa, Canada listens. From Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, U.S. presidents have been given the honour of addressing Canada's Parliament. Sometimes their speeches draw warm ovations; others are met by catcalls and anger. But over time, each presidential message has been an important indicator of the goodwill — and the problems — facing these neighbours.

In the spring of 1961 Canada played host to American royalty, as President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie made a two-day visit. While newspapers take note of her pillbox hat and his "Florida-tanned figure," Kennedy is in Ottawa to push for a stronger alliance with Canada in the Cold War era. CBC Television is there as a crowd of 50,000 people gathers on Parliament Hill to catch a glimpse of the first couple.
• John F. Kennedy was the 35th U.S. president and served less than one term, from 1961 to 1963. He was assassinated, in Dallas, on Nov. 22, 1963.
• After he arrived at Parliament, Kennedy addressed a joint session of both the House of Commons and the Senate. He said, famously, "Geography has made us neighbours; history has made us friends."
• The president also encouraged Canada to stand with the U.S. against the Communist "threat to liberty."

• The address was met with frequent bursts of applause, cheers and standing ovations.
• Members of Parliament interpreted remarks on the need to increase military ownership as a dig at the Canadian government. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker had been wavering for over a year on whether to acquire nuclear weapons.
• During his address, Kennedy also attempted a few sentences in French, but said he regretted doing so when his wife's French is far superior.

• After the address, the Kennedys attended an intimate 20-person dinner. Guests included: Leader of the Opposition Lester B. Pearson, House of Commons Speaker Roland Michener and Gov. Gen. Georges Vanier.
• The dinner's main course was filet mignon, and for dessert, strawberry tarts were served. After dinner, guests enjoyed brandy and cigars.

• Descriptions of the president and first lady's attire appeared in Canadian newspapers. In Parliament, Kennedy was described as wearing a "dark blue business suit with maroon tie" and noted for his "famous shock of brown hair."
The Globe and Mail reported that, "Mrs. Kennedy had all the ladies ogling the Oleg Cassini evening gown ... a pink-ribbed silk, flounced with three tiers of ruffles and matching stole, reminiscent of the 1920s."

• "Nothing is more vital than the unity of the United States and Canada," said President John F. Kennedy in his address to Parliament. The U.S. president encouraged Canada to join a coalition meant to increase military ownership in the Cold War era.
• President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first U.S. president to visit Canada's capital, in 1943. He gave his address outside Parliament on a speaker system that echoed throughout the neighbourhood.

Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television News
Broadcast Date: May 18, 1961
Anchor: Byng Whitteker
Duration: 2:10

Last updated: January 30, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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