The Harper-Obama meeting in the White House was a conspicuous success

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Monday, February 7, 2011

He did it again, as he always does -Stephen Harper read his entire opening statement in French first, before repeating it in English.

That he happened to be at the White House, with the president of the United States standing beside him, made no difference. Harper always begins in French, not that he's received much credit or many votes for it.

CNN used the opportunity to cut away from its live coverage of the joint news conference in Washington to ask its commentators what they thought of Obama's remarks on the turmoil and transition in Egypt. It wasn't their only cutaway from Harper, who in their terms was the guy inconveniently standing beside the president.

Sigh. It's always been that way for Canadians trying to get the attention of the Americans, especially when something big, like Egypt, is going on. It matters what they think. They might ask our opinion, but they're just being polite.

Nevertheless, last Friday's White House meeting of the president and prime minister was a conspicuous success, in both substance and style.

On substance, they signed off on a 10-page declaration appointing a joint task force for a border that it is both secure and streamlined. The problem with the world's longest undefended border in the post-9/11 era is that it's, well, mostly undefended. The U.S. obsession with security is matched by the Canadian preoccupation with the $1.5 billion of two-way trade that crosses the border every day. Stated another way -their safety depends on the border, our livelihood relies on it.

After years of Canadian fretting about a "thickening of the border," as if it were some kind of waist line, Harper spoke Friday of "de-congesting the border." That's a much more felicitous way of putting it. And he noted: "while a border defines two peoples, it need not divide them."

As for concerns about a diminution of Canadian sovereignty, Obama said he had as much confidence in Harper's ability to protect Canada's sovereignty as he did in looking after the interests of the United States.

But just to be clear, in his prepared remarks, Harper added: "A threat to the United States is a threat to Canada, to our trade, to our interests, to our values and to our common civilization. Canada has no friends among America's enemies. And America has no better friend than Canada."

For his part, Obama observed that the U.S. and Canada "are woven together like no other two countries in the world."

Obama also struck a graceful note in thanking Canada for agreeing to stay on in Afghanistan in a reprofiled training role once our combat mission ends later this year.

What was striking was the obvious comfort level and relaxed body language between them, developed at bilateral meetings and on the margins of G8, G20, NATO and APEC summits over the last two years.

Off the top, Obama called Harper "Stephen" -not Steve, as George W. Bush once did in the same setting. Obama referred to Harper's garage-band rendition of the Rolling Stones which he understood was a hit on YouTube.

For his part, Harper began by saying: "Thank you, Barack, for your friendship, both personal and professional."

These two belong to the same generational boomer cohort, with Harper born in 1959 and Obama in 1961. Obama might not have heard Harper's garage band, but he grew up listening to the same music. Both are used to being the smartest guy in the room.

And they've both had to steer their economies through the scariest recession in 60 years. They became partners in the auto bailout of 2009, a seminal event in forging a friendship.

In terms of the recovery, it's all about jobs, and in that regard Canada is doing much better than the U.S. Job numbers out on Friday showed 69,000 new jobs in Canada last month, far more than the 15,000 predicted; meanwhile, only 36,000 new jobs were created in the U. S, far less than the nearly 150,000 forecast. On a per capita basis, the Canadian economy created nearly 20 times as many new jobs as the U.S. in January.

That's not a bragging number, but one to worry about.

 
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