Was the American ambassador meddling in a Canadian election?
John Gray, CBC.ca Reality Check Team | Dec. 14, 2005 | More Reality Check
Long before David Wilkins rose to his feet to address the Canadian Club in Ottawa, Canadian-American relations were in a bit of a scramble.
First, Prime Minister Paul Martin seemed to go out his way in Montreal to scold the United States for its attitude towards climate change. Martin virtually accused the United States of having no moral responsibility.
The State Department responded by scolding Canada's ambassador, Frank McKenna, for Martin's performance.
Then Martin abruptly changed his election schedule and flew through a snowstorm to get back to Montreal to meet former president Bill Clinton, both of them standing four-square on climate change in an obvious rebuke to President George W. Bush.
Afterwards, Wilkins weighed in with a cautionary wag of an ambassadorial finger:
"It may be smart election-year politics to thump your chest and constantly criticize your friend and your No. 1 trading partner. But it is a slippery slope, and all of us should hope that it doesn't have a long-term impact on the relationship."
The newspaper headlines described it as a rebuke and a scolding, and there were dark mutterings on television news programs about the ambassador meddling in a Canadian election campaign.
The reality is that such complaints come from people too young or too addled to remember.
The obvious precedent dates back, to the early 1960s, when John F. Kennedy and his diplomats conducted something close to war against then-prime minister John Diefenbaker.
Diefenbaker had offended the Americans in a variety of ways. He did not want to join the Organization of American States; he insisted on Canada trading with China and Cuba; he did not want American nuclear missiles in Canada; he would not support the American blockade of Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis.
So successive American ambassadors recruited Canadian journalists and politicians to support the pro-missile and anti-Diefenbaker campaign. Astonishingly, the U.S. even sent the recently retired supreme allied commander in Europe, Gen. Lauris Nortsad, to Ottawa to campaign publicly for nuclear missiles.
Diefenbaker retaliated with a strongly anti-American campaign that continued through the following federal election. Diefenbaker lost power in the 1963 election but his nationalist campaign was so popular that he held Lester Pearson's Liberals to a slim minority victory.
An intervention of a quite different kind came in 1995, more than a generation later, when President Bill Clinton made it clear that the United States preferred a Canada united, not divided.
Clinton told the House of Commons, "In a world darkened by ethnic conflicts that literally tear nations apart, Canada has stood for all of us as a model of how people of different cultures can live and work together in peace, prosperity and respect."
Then on the eve of the 1995 referendum, lest his earlier intervention be misunderstood, he repeated his support for a united Canada: "I can tell you that a strong and united Canada has been a wonderful partner for the United States and an incredibly important and constructive citizen throughout the entire world."
And later on, there was Ambassador Paul Cellucci, who gloried in what he called public diplomacy.
Cellucci was ambassador during the 2004 Canadian election and did not make any particularly notable intervention. But by that time, Cellucci had been in Canada for three years and he had made sure there was no mystery about what he thought of things.
Cellucci made a career of his public diplomacy. Most notable was Cellucci's lecture to Canada about how disappointed – really, really disappointed – the United States was that Canada had not joined up for the invasion of Iraq.
And he also freely lectured Canadians about the size of their military, border controls, concern for security and the U.S. need for Canadian energy.
Thinking back to Cellucci, to Clinton and to the days of Diefenbaker, probably we should not really be surprised by Ambassador Wilkins.