Obama in Ottawa: When Hope Met Apathy

Today, President Barack Obama, the product of a reinvigorated and dynamic political culture, met with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the by-product of a diseased system of government and an apathetic Canadian public. Although both men ran in federal elections this fall, the Canadian public largely ignored Harper's battle for re-election as they were so transfixed by the American race. On Tuesday, October 14th, 2008 only 59% of the Canadian electorate bothered voting, marking the lowest voter turnout in Canadian history. Stephen Harper's Conservative Party managed to get another minority parliament, but this was in the shadow of the ominous fact that all of the major Canadian political parties lost supporters at the polls in 2008. This miserable fact stands in sharp contrast to the new American appetite for participation that led to a record high voter turnout in the United States just a few weeks later. And then to reinforce how meaningless the Canadian federal election had been, Harper was able to convince the Governor General of Canada to prorogue Parliament in an attempt to dodge a vote of non-confidence that would have forced him to relinquish his role as Prime Minister. Thus, as President-elect Obama readied a transitional team to take on some of the most daunting challenges facing the world, Canada's government closed shop and sat on the sidelines as the Canadian and world economy continued to crumble.

This strange series of events in Canada barely made a ripple in international headlines. Last year, an eerily prescient episode of South Park premiered in which Canada went on strike and nobody, except the South Park boys who missed their Canadian TV, cared. Apparently, even the twisted imaginations of South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone couldn't have fathomed the actual story: Canada did go on strike and not only did the world not care, the Canadians didn't really think much about it either! The irony of the sheer boredom with which Canadians approach their democratic duty, each of whom appears to have become convinced of its inconsequentiality, is that it inadvertently resulted in a Canadian Prime Minister that would make the American GOP proud. That's right, the earnestly progressive and PC True North Strong and Free, land of gay marriages, permissive approaches to 'illicit substances' and universal health care, somehow elected Stephen Harper, a man who combines a Palin-esque provincialism with Dick Cheney's reverence for secrecy and control. And, today we foisted him on the new American president to represent the Canadian case.

While most Canadians do seem vaguely disgusted by Harper, they're not concerned enough to do anything about him. Perhaps this is because they're relatively confident that Harper doesn't have the power to challenge the other major Canadian parties and the bloated Ottawa bureaucracy. It is, after all, business as usual in Ottawa, a national capital bereft of ideas and cowed by decades of influence peddling by Quebec sovereigntists. This is not to say that Canada doesn't face major problems. Canada has not escaped the ravages of the global financial crisis, which has hit Alberta's ethically debased oil sands economy and central Canada's manufacturing sector particularly hard. Instead, it is to say that most Canadians expect President Obama to fix the problem for them, even if most would never publicly admit this due to a national pride that has been constructed around a particularly virulent strain of anti-Americanism.

Although Canadians tend to be polite and to love American money, they generally don't like Americans. Canadians love Obama and have celebrated his trip to Canada, but there is a trace of bitterness about the whole thing. Canadians are proud today because they believe that Obama's trip has once again validated the special relationship between the two countries and, in so doing, justified Canada's sense of global worth. At the same time, they resent having to rely on the United States to reaffirm their own sense of self.

And, Canadians are all too aware that with Obama, America has once again proven to be Babe Ruth -- badly behaved, messy, ignoring the rules, but somehow, at the plate, able to confidently point to the sky and always -- no matter how improbable -- always hit it out of the park. Previous President Bush, on the other hand, had given Canadians hope. For a fleeting moment, the disheveled genius of the American experiment looked to have finally failed. In the Bush years, Canadians had a dream. They began to believe that their quiet, safe, and completely unoriginal approach to running a country had won out. And, they saw a time where the classic Canadian justification for it's own middling status, indoctrinated into each of us in Canada's public schools as a theory of history in which the allegedly more ethically and morally sound example of Canada's painfully slow political evolution was clearly far superior to the apparently obvious excesses of America's revolutionary spirit, was actually correct! Of course, this didn't happen. Obama was elected and Canadians found themselves in the familiar, if uncomfortable, position of vicariously living off the hope, energy and experimentation of the United States, coveting every step that America took towards once again searching for that ever elusive but always captivating dream of a more perfect union.

Despite the tortured self-reflexivity that Obama has inspired in many of us, Canadians, including Stephen Harper, can also be very practical. We know that the Obama administration has a plan for getting America out of the financial crisis, and we want in on it. In today's meeting, environmental policy and Afghanistan were discussed primarily to, I suggest, give the talks the gloss of a meeting between two world leaders. But, the really important issues were trade and jobs. This wasn't a meeting between two world leaders; it was more like a meeting between a CEO and a branch-plant manager. Stephen Harper, of the Canadian branch plant, brought his concerns to the table and asked President Obama to address them. For instance, Canadians don't like the Buy American clause in the American bailout and don't want to see anything like it in future financial reconstruction packages. Canadians' primary expectation of Prime Minister Harper was that he would convey this message. If Mr. Harper succeeded in this task as branch plant manager, Canadians will be pleased and will continue to regard him with a numb disdain that will ensure his continued tenure as Canadian Prime Minister.

It is only through understanding the strange confluence of anti-Americanism and Canada's economic dependence on the United States that we can really understand the significance of today's meetings in Ottawa. Ultimately, today's events will be at best a blip in the international press and a footnote in the history of the Obama administration. But, in Canada, this was monumental. Canadians were able to see on their own soil the glorious product of a vibrant and powerful American experiment. This made us celebrate even as it made us jealous. But, perhaps most of all, it gave us a sense that we might be on the radar of a real leader and that he might lift us out of the darkness too.