Toronto Star

Canada gets image makeover in U.S.

Americans view once-friendly neighbour through prism of big oil, corporate taxes


WASHINGTON— An unusual phenomenon has transpired in the United States Congress when it comes to mentions of Canada. In fact, it’s more like two phenomena.

The first is that references to Canada have gone down over the years — way down.

The Congressio­nal Record suggests a drop by half since the free-trade debates of the early 1990s as distant wars, trade deals and geopolitic­al turmoil supplanted the focus once lavished upon the next-door neighbour, with 1,548 mentions in the 102nd Congress of 1991-93 gradually melting into barely 700 mentions in the soon-to-expire 113th Congress.

The second point of interest is the partisan shift: It used to be mostly Democrats talking about the neighbour, sometimes favourably and sometimes negatively. Now it’s mostly Republican­s, according to the Capitol Words website.

“There’s been a shift in perception,” said Christophe­r Sands, a Canadawatc­her at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

“That is the perception of Canada being a more conservati­ve place.”

That switch occurred around 2006 — the year Canada elected a Conservati­ve government. But Sands said the political-image makeover has been more gradual, since Canada balanced its books in the 1990s, lowered its corporate taxes and became a huge oil exporter.

In an indication of that, the conservati­ve Wall Street Journal that once called Canada an honorary ThirdWorld member now gushes with praise for the northern neighbour.

It’s usually used as an unflatteri­ng point of comparison with the paper’s principal object of disdain: the Obama administra­tion. The theme grew noisiest this summer with the Burger King move to Canada, with its friendlier business taxes.

That image makeover was also evident when the newspaper’s editorin-chief interviewe­d Prime Minister Stephen Harper during a public forum this past fall at Goldman Sachs headquarte­rs in New York.

“Have you changed Canada?” Gerard Baker asked the prime minister.

“Is it a more conservati­ve country? Is it a country that values more now than it did before you came in, the private sector? That is more conservati­ve in outlook, and in sensibilit­y, and in character?”

Harper replied that, yes, he likes to think so. He then proceeded to offer some advice to American conservati­ves about how his party had worked to attract immigrants. During the same event, Harper bashed Vladimir Putin and announced that he was considerin­g extending Canada’s mission against the Islamic State group.

So the next-door neighbour known for its socialized medicine, liberal social policy and aversion to the Iraq War is now perceived through a slightly different prism: big oil, small corporate taxes and hawkish rhetoric against Putin and the Islamic State.

That trend will accelerate in early 2015. A decision is coming soon on the Keystone XL oil pipeline. And whatever U.S. President Barack Obama decides, it’s sure to prompt some noisy confrontat­ion — against a Republican, oil-friendly Congress if he says no, or against anti-pipeline protesters who have promised civil disobedien­ce if he says yes.

The extent to which oil and Canada have become synonymous in the U.S. is laid out in stats from the Montrealba­sed media-monitoring company Influence Communicat­ion.

In the rest of the world the big Canadian story of the year was the Ottawa shooting. In the U.S., Keystone was easily the No. 1 Canadian story.

And U.S. media aren’t uniform in their opinions of Canadian issues.

This year, the Wall Street Journal praised Canada’s business climate; the more liberal New York Times ran a feature about how Canada’s middle class had surpassed the American one: “They are working fewer hours for more pay, enjoying a stronger safety net, living longer on average, and facing less income inequality.”

So attitudes about Canada don’t quite follow partisan or ideologica­l lines, The Hudson Institute’s Sands said. The broad backdrop, beyond the occasional irritant, is one of a friendship that crosses partisan boundaries.

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