When Ronald Reagan visited Canada for the first time

He'd only been President for six weeks, and for his first state visit Ronald Reagan chose Canada.

6 weeks after his inauguration, U.S. President met with PM Pierre Trudeau in Ottawa

U.S. President Ronald Reagan makes first official visit to Canada

42 years ago
Duration 2:49
Six weeks after his 1981 swearing-in, Reagan makes a state visit met by protest and warmth in equal parts.

A presidential visit was an event so special, the CBC sent Knowlton Nash to Parliament Hill to cover it as host of The National

Nash, standing in the vestibule in Parliament, began by reporting that it was Ronald Reagan's first foreign trip as president in March 1981.

"What was supposed to be a friendly reception for Reagan, though, was marred by hostile demonstrations," he said. "Hundreds of protesters jeered the president on Parliament Hill." 

Reporter Brian Stewart took up the story.

The arrival

The presidential motorcade was accompanied by Mounties in traditional red serge on horseback. (The National/CBC Archives)

"President Reagan's arrival in Ottawa this morning was a tranquil enough affair, full of diplomatic decorum," said Stewart as Reagan and his wife, Nancy, were seen descending a staircase from the presidential airplane.

Accompanied by red serge-clad Mounties on horseback, the presidential motorcade made its way through Ottawa.   

And as it did, the "hundreds of demonstrators" who lined the route could be heard booing, chanting and shouting in protest of Reagan's stand on the environment and U.S. involvement in El Salvador. 

"Some American officials seemed appalled as Canadian security allowed demonstrators within yards of the first meeting between Prime Minister Trudeau and the president," said Stewart.

The leaders speak

Pierre Trudeau and Ronald Reagan were all smiles as they addressed the crowd while outside on the steps on Parliament Hill. (The National/CBC Archives)

In his welcoming speech pledging friendship as the two men stood on a red carpet on the steps of Parliament, Trudeau made reference to the protesters.

"As you can see from these signs, and as you can hear from some of these lonely voices, Canadians expect much of Americans," said Trudeau. "But more important, Canadians have much faith in the Americans."

Reagan, for his part, praised existing ties between the two countries as Trudeau stood by with his arms crossed.

"The people of the United States do not merely value your friendship," Reagan said. "We cherish it."

President Reagan smilingly looks up at an RCMP officer who gives the salute to the U.S. leader who is followed by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The two were entering the Parliament Buildings for cabinet meetings on March 10, 1981. (Andy Clark/The Canadian Press)

He went on to note the "deep, unbending bonds of trust between old and devoted friends."

The president closed by attempting a few words in French.

"Merci. C'est un plaisir to be with you here today." 

Although their words were picked up by microphone, the two leaders had a few private words in which Reagan could be heard joking that he had probably imported the protesters.

"Hey guys, when I go to the United States, I'm not met with these kind of signs," said Trudeau to the crowd. "The Americans have some beefs against us too, but we receive them politely. Now how about a great cheer for President Reagan?"

The protesters

Who are the protesters taking issue with Ronald Reagan?

42 years ago
Duration 2:20
When Reagan visits Ottawa in 1981, reporter Mike Duffy surveys the Canadians opposed

The "so-called security envelope" in Canada looked different when the U.S. president came to town, as Mike Duiffy reported. 

"Everywhere the president travels, there is an elaborate communications network," said Duffy. "Distinctive white phones with secure direct lines to the White House, even on the runway."

Sure enough, one such phone on a tiny table, connected to a very long cable, was seen being placed as a plane approached in the distance.

Other security measures included streets being cleared of traffic 10 minutes before the motorcade passed, and RCMP units stationed on the tops of buildings to survey the crowds.   

Those crowds turned up on the hill in force by the time Reagan arrived, with a mixed bag of concerns including acid rain, then a serious source of pollution.

"A lot of that pollution comes from the United States," said a young man. "So, I'm all for Reagan in some ways, but I think he should watch what he does as far as pollution measures go in the United States."

Other demonstrators were there to push for nuclear disarmament. And there were some pro-Reagan counter-protesters, too.

'Heavy wooden clubs'

Police kept "the most radical" protesters -- those using "heavy wooden clubs" to carry their signs -- out of the zone closest to Parliament Hill. (The National/CBC Archives)

But the largest turnout consisted of what Duffy called "the left-wing groups" opposed to "U.S. involvement in El Salvador, and U.S. policy generally."

"Go home!" shouted an especially loud protester. "Murderer! Warmonger!"

But it seemed the security staff was most concerned about the protesters' signs, not for the messages they carried but how they were carried.

"Police kept the most radical of these demonstrators, the ones using heavy wooden clubs to carry their signs, outside the Parliament Hill compound," said Duffy.   

But the demonstrators were far from a unified force.

"Down with U.S. imperialism!" shouted one, followed by another yelling "Shut up!" 

An American flag is burned during a protest on Parliament Hill during the visit of U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1981. (The National/CBC Archives)

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