The House

Canadian, American officials optimistic on democracy despite 'concerning cocktail' of threats

Politicians on both sides of the border are expressing confidence that Canada and the United States can both continue to have a strong, friendly relationship and bolster the strength of their democracies, despite a series of threats arising from partisan division, frustration and economic unease.

Societal challenges require renewed effort, senior politicians say

Canadian and American flags fly together in Point Roberts, Washington, U.S. a pene-exclave on the southernmost tip of the Tsawwassen peninsula, south of Vancouver. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Despite a series of challenges in both Canada and the United States, politicians on both sides of the border say they are confident the two countries can overcome a difficult political climate and secure their respective democracies.

In interviews on CBC Radio's The House airing Saturday, U.S. Ambassador David Cohen, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, Canadian Senator Peter Boehm and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy all offered their takes on the state of the Canada-U.S. relationship and the strength of democracy in their countries.

Murphy, a Democrat who has served as New Jersey governor since 2018, told host Chris Hall that the United States faces a "cocktail of concerns" when it comes to its own democracy.

He pointed to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, on which Congress is currently holding hearings, but he also talked about how he believed the Supreme Court in the U.S. was out of step with public opinion on divisive issues like abortion and gun possession.

American ambassador to Canada David Cohen talks to The House about the Canada-U.S. relationship, then Governor of New Jersey Phil Murphy and Canadian senator Peter Boehm sit down to discuss the state of democracy in Canada and the United States.

"If you look at where America is on concealed carry weapons, where America is on Roe v. Wade ... the will of the people is dramatically odds with this radical right wing block on the Supreme Court," he said.

Even with those challenges, Murphy said, he expressed optimism.

"I believe we will pull through this," he said.

Boehm, who has served as ambassador to Germany, deputy minister of international development and for the G7 summit in 2018, along with a host of other civil service roles, similarly said he was an optimist but that Canada also faced significant challenges on social and political issues.

"We're in a bit of a vicious circle of popular frustration," he told Hall. "I think peoples' frustration with the impact of the pandemic is a big factor. We have economic stagnation, to a degree. And of course, in all of this, politics have become very polarized."

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy says the United States Supreme Court is out of step with public opinion on divisive issues like abortion and gun possession. (Eduard Munoz/Reuters)

Sunny days and snowstorms

Ambassador David Cohen also identified challenges in the Canada-U.S. relationship and for the countries' two democracies.

He said he believed in the fundamental friendship between the two countries formed by family ties, travel and commerce, as well as shared values, but, he said, over the past four or five years, Canadians have felt "betrayed" by a lack of reciprocal affection from the United States.

Freeland, meanwhile, said Canada was the country that should be most concerned about developments in the United States, but also that Canadians should be confident "we can deal with sunny days and we can deal with snowstorms."

But when it comes to ensuring a stable, sustainable relationship with this country's most important partner, Freeland also highlighted the responsibility Canadians bear. She notes that Canada needs to be seen as reliable and responsible ally, which was not, she said, the image put forward during convoy protests in the winter that snarled traffic and trade at the border.

"I could see our reputation as a trusted trading partner and investment destination just kind of eroding every minute. And we just cannot do that. We are not a big enough, rich enough country to have self-inflicted wounds, to amputate parts of ourselves," she told Hall.

Protestors blocking the roadway at the Ambassador Bridge border crossing in Windsor, Ontario, in February. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said that the convoy protests in Ottawa and at border points with the U.S. challenged the image of Canada as a reliable and responsible ally. (Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)

Taking nothing for granted

In their various ways, each of the Canadian and American officials pointed to renewed, re-energized engagement — both with domestic citizenry and cross-border partners — as the way to revitalize both the relationship and the two countries' respective democracies.

Cohen said past challenges have shown "that maybe we shouldn't take this incredible relationship and the mutual commitment to democratic values so casually and lightly; that it doesn't come automatically."

Boehm said it was up to politicians to act in a forthright, clear manner, and to push back against cynicism and misinformation in the public sphere.

Deputy prime minister and finance minister Chrystia Freeland sits down with Chris Hall to talk about what this country can do to keep its most important bilateral relationship — with the United States — on track.

Freeland said moments like the overturning of Roe v. Wade show rights in a democracy cannot be taken for granted and there was a danger of complacency.

"There can always be a backlash, all rights can be eroded. All institutions can be attacked and can crumble. There's no inevitability about democracy. There's no inevitability about women's rights," she said.

When it comes to the Canada-U.S. relationship, Murphy said a close relationship can always be closer. And when it comes to American democracy, he said, there was no more important time than now to show up and vote — to back democracy through action.

"Vote, and vote on the side of democracy," he said. "I'm a proud Democrat, but I'm less speaking to partisan politics than I am standing up for the essence of America, the constitution that underpins our country that, to me, needs to be rallied around."

Discussing once more the backlash to recent SCOTUS rulings and revelations around the Jan. 6 attack, Murphy said he hoped it would spur positive democratic participation.

"I think there's a sense of rage right now that will bring people to the polls and will prove, please God, that democracy is alive and well."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christian Paas-Lang covers federal politics for CBC News in Ottawa as an associate producer with The House and a digital writer with CBC Politics. You can reach him at christian.paas-lang@cbc.ca.

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