Norman Spector is an op-ed commentator and publisher of the website Norman's Spectator.

He is a former chief of staff to prime minister Brian Mulroney and a former publisher of the Jerusalem Post newspaper.


For months, we've been hearing that the election of Barack Obama presages a rocky period in Canada-U.S. relations. And that it would be bad news for Prime Minister Stephen Harper in particular.

On the contrary: the imminent retirement of George W. Bush is the best news Harper has had in years, as it will remove a major element of the attack ads directed against him since he re-entered public life in 2001.

Nevertheless, Canadians should increasingly expect to hear the opposite as the prime minister's political opponents try to position themselves as agents of Obama-like change.


President-elect Barack Obama gives his acceptance speech at Grant Park in Chicago Tuesday night, Nov. 4, 2008. ((Morry Gash/Associated Press))

Supporters of Liberal Michael Ignatieff in particular will likely try to rebrand their man — once presented as the reincarnation of Pierre Trudeau — as Canada's Obama. Good luck!

Standing up to the U.S.

Some commenters will undoubtedly cite the rocky 1960s relationship between then prime minister John Diefenbaker and John F. Kennedy as evidence of what happens when Conservatives and Democrats are in office at the same time.

That, of course, would be to miss the irony that it was Diefenbaker who stood up to the Americans while the Liberals would be the ones who ultimately agreed to station nuclear-tipped missiles on Canadian soil.

It would also miss the fact that while Diefenbaker had little in common with Kennedy and was intensely envious of his French and the glamour of his wife, the old coot couldn't get along with anyone, as we later were to witness when his Tory government dissolved in mayhem.

On the positive front, historians will point to the warm relationship between Conservative PM Brian Mulroney and Republicans Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. in the 1980s, as well as that between Liberal Jean Chrétien and Democrat Bill Clinton a decade later.

However, Mulroney, one of the world's great schmoozers, would have undoubtedly been able to effect the same pivot as Britain's Tony Blair, who went from being Clinton's best buddy to the same status with George W. Bush, the incumbent.

It's probably also worth noting that Chrétien went to uncommon efforts to hide the closeness of his relationship to Clinton until they were both out of office.

Awkward moments

Back to the stormy front, let's not forget either the confrontation between Lester Pearson and Democratic president Lyndon Johnson after Pearson criticized the Vietnam War at Temple University.

Nor should we overlook Trudeau's both awkward and productive relationships with Republicans Richard Nixon and his successor Gerald Ford.

Nixon once referred to Trudeau as "that asshole," yet it was his Republican stand-in, Ford, who championed Canada's inclusion in the G7, that prestigious economic club of countries from which we had initially been excluded.

Harper, too, will find that — notwithstanding our differences and provided we stay out of each other's domestic politics — Americans and Canadians have much in common, are each other's best friends and, as continental neighbours, have a thicket of common interests.

Common ground

For his part, Obama, who has more than enough on his plate and will not be looking for needless fights, should get on famously with Harper. Both are of the same post-baby boom generation; both have outgoing spouses and young children; both are strong, church-attending Christians.

Notably, Obama ended his victory speech Tuesday night with the words "May God bless the United States of America," words that, when used by Harper in the past to refer to Canada, grated on the ears of some Canadians though that has not stopped him from saying them.

It may surprise others to learn that Obama "believes that marriage is a sacred union, a blessing from God, and one that is intended for a man and a woman exclusively," according to his advisers quoted in a recent New York Times report.

The two men could have much in common.

Some sore points still

Skeptics will point to expected differences on issues such as climate change. But neither the Bush nor the Clinton/Gore administration ratified the Kyoto accord. Obama will be focusing on the successor treaty — as is Harper — and the new president will be bargaining hard in pursuit of U.S. national interests, which may well include access to Canada's energy supplies.

Others will point to potential friction over the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, which Obama says he will shut, and to the controversial case there of Canadian Omar Khadr.

However, as the New York Times reported last week, there are many very dangerous people at that site, and a president Obama will not be able to simply set them free without trial.

On issues such as health care, Harper can be helpful to the new president in explaining the merits of the Canadian system to U.S. conservatives.

On the other hand, Afghanistan and trade could spell trouble between the two countries.

The economy will be Obama's priority and the Democratic party has become increasingly protectionist of late. What's more, Obama believes that Afghanistan, in contrast to Iraq, is the good war against "terrorism" and must be fought with increased resources.

Last week in La Presse, Canada's former ambassador to Washington, Raymond Chrétien, argued that "Our military participation in Afghanistan is one of our principal trump cards" in deflecting a ramping up of U.S. protectionism.

However, Obama is expected to ask NATO allies to step up their involvement in Afghanistan while during the recent federal election campaign, Harper made a firm commitment to end our military mission there in 2011, as the last Parliament had voted.

Would Canadians support revisiting that decision, at the request of a president who is popular in Canada?

Alternatively, if it comes to a clash that could affect our access to the U.S. market, will Canadians, egged on by the Liberal party as they were in the Pearson-Deifenbaker days, support a U.S. Democratic president against their Conservative prime minister?