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Smiling Texans, Glum Canucks

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CattleAnnie

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Thu, March 24, 2005


Smiling Texans, glum Canucks

By GREG WESTON -- Sun Ottawa Bureau


On the eve of Paul Martin's first prime ministerial meeting with George W. Bush in January last year, Canadians had ample reason to believe that a new era in bilateral relations was dawning.

After all, Jean Chretien was at long last gone.

No longer would Canadians have to fear what embarrassing diplomatic faux pas might befall the PM every time he left the country.

Most of all, as a millionaire shipping magnate with a pro-U.S. bent, Martin seemed just the guy to warm up a right-wing U.S. president, thawing what had become a distinct chill between the feds and Washington. But 14 months and four summits later, we can't help wondering if Canada-U.S. relations are any better off today.

Some things haven't changed at all. Too bad they are all the disputes most affecting Canadian interests.

In their latest encounter, Martin and Bush met yesterday at the president's Texas ranch, along with Mexico's Vicente Fox.

(Your faithful scribe did not attend. Ever since Martin's officials lied to reporters during his first meeting with Bush in Mexico last year, I have refused to waste time and money following the PM to these foreign spinfests.)

Media accounts of the latest summit and the three previous ones are almost verbatim -- "cordial, but failed to resolve any of the outstanding issues affecting Canada."

At a news conference before yesterday's lunch at his ranch, Bush seemed to all but laugh off illegal American tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber, shrugging that the dispute has been around since he became president.

Similarly, Canadian cattle remain banned from the U.S. market over mad cow and American politics, an issue Bush referred to as the "cow thing."

On two hot environmental disputes -- an American water diversion project near the Canada-U.S. border, and oil drilling in an ecologically fragile region of the North -- Martin conceded there was no agreement with the president going into yesterday's meeting, and none coming out.

Asked by a reporter if the Texas meeting achieved anything in resolving the softwood dispute, the beef ban, environmental issues -- anything at all -- Martin replied: "On this kind of issue, I think you should raise it every time."

What did come out of yesterday's meeting was a breathless announcement that the three leaders have agreed to establish the "security and prosperity partnership of North America."

The eight-page missive -- intended to spur government officials to action, and obviously written long before the leaders arrived in Texas -- is more wish list than blueprint.

The three countries, for instance, agree to "develop and implement a strategy" to combat drugs, terrorism and organized crime; to protect ports; to monitor the food supply; to screen airline passengers.

The leaders agreed to develop more strategies to make the three economies even more integrated than they already are under free trade -- everything from regulatory reform to getting rid of customs charges for travelers.

Taken at face value, the plan describes a kind of continental Nirvana. But it is also a daunting Yellow Pages of major bilateral issues that confronted Martin when he came to power, and continue unresolved today.

One thing has changed: Since Martin came to power, the Americans have watched a PM who dithers and withers to public opinion on key issues such as missile defence.

For all the smiles in Texas yesterday, Canadians have nothing to fear more than weak leadership.

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Take care.
 
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