MONTREAL — Now we approach an important week in the culture of North America.
Thursday is the Fourth of July, known to Americans as Independence Day, the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and its celebration of its notion, as revolutionary as the Revolutionary War that followed, that all are created equal. It was for Independence Day 1872 that Mark Twain noted that “we have a form of government which gives each man a fair chance and no favor.”
Monday is Canada Day, when in 1867 the Constitution Act drew Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario together to form a country all its own. Sixty years later, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King saluted the “long procession of discoverers and explorers, pioneers and settlers, sailors and soldiers, missionaries and traders; the men and women who have hewn their homes from the forests, who have developed our resources, fashioned our industries, extended our commerce; the molders of thought and opinion and ideals in the realm of letters and art and government.”
The two countries are in a rough patch right now — trade tensions have endangered one of the great commercial relationships in all of human history — but Canada and the United States are too close to be at odds permanently. The reason: Two massive countries spanning one sprawling continent, Canada and the United States share what Robert Bothwell, a fellow at the University of Toronto, calls “the same moral universe.”
Indeed, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke at Canada Day two years ago — the 150th anniversary of his country’s confederation — he spoke of a country “strong in our differences, proud of our diversity, and united by our dream,” a description that both nations at their best seek to realize. And when Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. traveled to Ottawa three years ago, he said, in the sometimes incoherent but always heartfelt rhetoric that has prompted ridicule in his 2020 presidential campaign: “There is no quit in Canada. There is no quit in the Canadian people. I really mean it. There is no quit in America.”
Across the United States, American theater audiences are applauding touring company productions of “Come From Away,” a stirring musical about the comfort (and comfort food) the people of Gander offered to travelers stranded in faraway Newfoundland in the days after the terrorist attacks of 2001. But that was not an isolated incident. For three months during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1980, Canadian diplomats in Tehran hid Americans and arranged for their return home.
When Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador to Iran during the crisis, died three years ago, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the envoy’s “courageous actions exemplify the enduring nature of the special relationship between the United States and Canada.”
One of the landmarks in that special relationship came in the summer of 1938, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt traveled to Kingston, Ontario, to meet Prime Minister Mackenzie King. FDR reminisced about having spent “so many happy hours of my life” in Canada, and his Canadian counterpart spoke of “the evident goodwill on all sides.” Then the American president, leader of a nation that from time to time had mounted invasions of Canada, pledged to defend Canada from foreign incursions.
“The United States and Canada have the strongest friendship in the world,” said Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers, a Canadian whose Pittsburgh office is a block from where the British Fort Pitt and the French Fort Duquesne were situated in the 18th century, before there was a Canada or a United States. “They’ve stood by each other in times of trouble. The labor movement is proud of fighting for working people on both sides of the border.
“But,” he added, “President Trump has left a sour taste.”
Trump regards Trudeau as callow. Trudeau considers Trump shallow. American presidents and Canadian prime ministers often have quarreled. President Lyndon B. Johnson once manhandled Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson at Camp David after the Canadian expressed qualms about the Vietnam War. Historians still debate whether President John F. Kennedy described Prime Minister John Diefenbaker as an “S.O.B.” in three letters the American scrawled on a briefing paper that he probably shouldn’t have left behind in a wastepaper basket during the leaders’ meeting.
For his part, Kennedy said he couldn’t have felt that way, because he hadn’t known Diefenbaker long enough to know that he was in fact an S.O.B. Then again, it was Kennedy who in 1961 made the most enduring comment about the two countries: “Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends.”
Despite the current friction, most Americans still feel that way. Listen to the testimony of 10-year NHL veteran Ben Lovejoy, born in New Hampshire:
“Playing hockey in Canada is different from playing anywhere else on Earth. It matters more there. The crowd cheers the intricacies in the most complex plays. You can walk down the street of any Canadian city and people will know even inconsequential players like me.”
I’m a dual citizen, the son of a Massachusetts father and a Montreal mother, the flesh and blood personification of Canadian-American relations. I’ve spent a career in American journalism — much of it in a (vain) attempt to convince my colleagues that Canada is interesting — and in eight weeks my wife and I will move to Montreal to teach for a year at McGill University.
That’s why this week is so special to us — and why, I have no doubt as I type this, this will be the only column printed in the United States to cite these two holidays, one splendid day of commemoration three days after the other.
In 1802, Daniel Webster, only a few months past his 20th birthday and a year after his graduation from college, gave a Fourth of July speech that asserted, “It is at the season when nature hath assumed her loveliest apparel that the American people assemble in their several temples to celebrate the birthday of their nation.”
Seven Canada Days ago, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted that an American invasion of Canada during the War of 1812 “made Canada possible.” He said the Canadians who fought off the American invaders stoked “the vision of freedom, democracy and justice that is our inheritance.” No longer geopolitical rivals, the two nations at last share that enduring vision.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.