The Sunday Magazine

Sleeping with a very cranky elephant: The history of Canada-U.S. tensions

U.S. President Donald Trump’s attacks on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are without precedent. Historian Margaret MacMillan looks back over the highs and lows of our at-times rocky relationship with our closest neighbour.
U.S. President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President of the European Council Donald Tusk participate in a working session of the G7 Summit in La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada on June 8, 2018. (AFP/Getty Images)

In 1969, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau travelled to Washington to meet with President Richard Nixon and coined a phrase that has come to define relations between Canada and the U.S.

"Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt," said the late Pierre Trudeau.

Pierre Trudeau's Washington Press Club speech in 1969

7 months ago
Duration 2:02
Trudeau utters his famous quote about living next to the U.S. being like "sleeping with an elephant." Aired March 25, 1969 on CBC Television News.

Today, the bitter truth of that observation is being felt by Pierre Trudeau's son. 

And these days, Canada's neighbours to the south — or at least their current president — don't appear particularly friendly or even-tempered. 

When President Trump imposed tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum under the pretext of national security, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada would impose equivalent tariffs if the United States does not back down. 

"Canadians: we're polite, we're reasonable, but we also will not be pushed around," said Trudeau.

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U.S. President Donald Trump is greeted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the G7 Summit in La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada on June 8, 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Trump retaliated with a Twitter tirade calling Trudeau "weak" and "dishonest." He later said Trudeau's comments would "cost a lot of money for the people of Canada."

In the long, colourful history of Canada-U.S. relations, there have been moments when presidents and prime ministers have hated each other and made no secret of it. 

But today, diplomatic relations between the two countries may be in uncharted territory.

"We've seen insults in international relations before. Hitler made very rude speeches about western leaders, Mussolini laughed at them. That sort of thing has happened between enemies. But something like this between friends ... I do find it absolutely extraordinary," says historian Margaret MacMillan.

MacMillan spoke to The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright about the highs and lows of Canada-U.S. relations, and what Trump's attack on Trudeau means for the future of negotiations.

John Diefenbaker's relationship with John F. Kennedy has been described as a "toxic swamp." Lyndon B. Johnson once picked Lester B. Pearson up by the lapel and shook him, after Pearson delivered some mild criticisms of America's behaviour in Vietnam.

MacMillan says personal animosities and comments have the power to matter more in a Trump administration than they did in earlier eras. 

"We usually think, there are all sorts of other links. But President Trump is so dominating this administration ... What he says matters, I think, in a way that perhaps [with] another president it wouldn't have mattered as much," she says. 

Margaret MacMillan is professor of history at the University of Oxford and the former provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto. Her many books include History's People, Paris 1919, Nixon and Mao, and The Uses and Abuses of History. (Rob Judges)

MacMillan says her real concern is that Trump appears willing to walk away from the institutions that have defined the post-war international order, like NATO, the UN, the IMF, and the World Bank. 

"All of these have been very important in helping to knit the world together economically. It doesn't mean they can't be criticized ... but without such institutions, how do we deal with countries that need to borrow money? How do we deal with development issues, which I think are important for us all? ... How do we deal with climate change?" said MacMillan in her interview with Michael Enright. 

"The sorts of problems we're dealing with aren't neatly confined in particular countries. They are truly global. Climate change respects no borders. The next big epidemic won't respect any borders." 

"I think international cooperation is very important, and if the United States is not prepared to be involved, that leaves a gaping hole at the middle of it all, because the United States is still the world's most powerful country." 

Margaret MacMillan is professor of history at the University of Oxford and the former provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto. Her books include History's PeopleParis 1919Nixon and Mao, and The Uses and Abuses of History. 

Click 'listen' at the top of the page to hear Micheal Enright's full conversation with Margaret MacMillan