Book Review No. 19 – Norris of Stewart, Strangers with Memories: The United States and Canada from Free Trade to Baghdad

John Stewart, Strangers with Memories: The United States and Canada from Free Trade to Baghdad (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017).

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In May 1990, a peculiar ad in an Ottawa newspaper called for a self-starting individual to analyze trade and energy policy for a foreign government.  Having just finished teaching an economics class at a local college, John Stewart – a Canadian citizen – applied for the job.  The subsequent interview brought him into the former U.S. Embassy at 100 Wellington Street, a colonial limestone building – one that Andrew Cohen suggests mimics Beaux Arts architecture – that sits across from Parliament.  While “it did not occur to that the United States Embassy might hire people through this route,” on 22 June 1990 Stewart began an unexpected career with the U.S. State Department (p.3).  For more than two decades, the author worked for the U.S. Embassy, a platform from which he analyzed key consequences of global affairs and domestic pressures on the Canadian polity while evaluating the political performances of those occupying the Langevin Block.

June 22, 1990 was a historic day for Stewart to start work.  Joining his new colleagues in a wood-panelled area on the second floor of the U.S. Embassy, he eyed a television.  “We were waiting to see what Elijah Harper would do” as Manitoba’s Legislative Assembly capsized the Meech Lake Accord (p.29).  As Canada’s political culture and governing institutions slammed into a severe constitutional storm – a political blizzard that tested the unity and durability of our ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ with associated whiteouts lingering throughout the 1990s – Stewart matured into the Embassy’s unofficial expert on “the economic and fiscal dimensions of Canadian federalism (p.29).

These core professional responsibilities afforded Stewart a rare vantage point from which to analyze pressing issues affecting U.S.-Canada relations.  Crafting concise prose and drawing upon valuable primary sources, he proves a skilled raconteur – with a “viewpoint of an inside practitioner” – adding essential updates to our disquieting North American narrative (p.xvi).  For instance, the book addresses why “the United States took a generally favourable view of Canada’s political and economic status quo” regarding Quebec’s 1995 sovereignty referendum and how the Clinton administration concerned itself “discreetly” (p.xi), yet deeply, with the “constitutional fate of a major ally, leading economic partner, and close neighbour” (p.34).  For Stewart, part of the explanation hinges on separatist leaders who appeared to “disdain and avoid discussion of the whole economic aspect of the sovereignty project” (p.39), including complexities connected to trade and economic relations “with Ontario and the United States” (p.36).

Reflecting upon his concern about the fate and future of a fragile Canada, Stewart divined privately that it was “high time the sovereignty debate faded… and that Quebecers – like other Canadians – focused on their economic future within Canada and North America” (p.41-2).  Far from being idiosyncratic, his orientation aligned with, and was given urgency because of, an emerging, overarching American priority: “with the great geopolitical struggle against communism being over and market economies seemingly victorious, economic interests became ascendant in the US administration,” including within the Department of State that was working to “re-adjust its cold-war priorities toward greater emphasis on trade and investment issues” (p.43).  Essentially, part of President Clinton’s campaign slogan – “the economy, stupid” – reflected continuity in U.S. foreign policy: “freer trade and ‘globalization,’ the doctrine of universal economic interchange, under rules largely designed by Americans and embodied in the brand-new World Trade Organization (WTO).”

In addition to analyzing the Byzantine details of Canada’s fiscal federal framework, Stewart was also tasked with supporting the Embassy’s top economic assignment in Ottawa during the Clinton years: marketing, defending, interpreting and implementing free trade.  Despite persistent pockets of protectionism in both Ottawa and Washington, by the early 2000s senior policymakers and corporate proponents from Canada and the U.S. were exploring options for “a new ‘big deal’ in continental relations” (p.69).  The urgency to deepen North American economic integration corresponded to concerns about increasing global competitiveness and the geopolitical “rise of East Asia” (p.75).  As well as sketching these important initiatives aiming to foster mutual prosperity, the book enriches familiar political portraits.  On a relaxed evening, Stewart strolls along somnolent Ottawa streets with Liberal opposition leader Jean Chrétien and on another occasion, he exchanges views on fiscal management with the Reform Party’s young chief policy officer, Stephen Harper.

Refreshingly, the anecdotes go beyond Ottawa.  Stewart – a visual learner with access to an Embassy travel budget – observed key elements of Canada’s economy by exploring various investments, initiatives, industries and institutions before penning reports about Canada’s manufacturing, mining, innovation, health and cultural sectors (p.55).  The author also reflects on select lessons surrounding global summits.  An engaging example emerges from the April 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City; the session proved an uneasy setting for Canada’s initial “top-level meetings with the incoming George W. Bush administration” (p.63).  First, this Summit featured a “multilateral setting for meetings with an administration that had, it turned out, little interest in multilateralism”, and second, Quebec City was one of a long series of summits “that played into the hands of aggressive protesters” proving successful for “radical groups and fiascos for summit diplomacy” (p.63).

And then there was war, as jihadists rocked the U.S. with a brutal and bruising “external shock,” killing and wounding thousands of people in New York, Virginia and, thanks to heroic efforts of those aboard United Airlines Flight 93, rural Pennsylvania.  Stewart recounts labouring at his Embassy desk on Tuesday, 11 September 2001 as “word spread that an airplane had struck one of the twin 110-storey towers of the World Trade Centre in New York” (p.94).  As he rushed to join a few colleagues in an Embassy conference room, they – like millions worldwide – watched the horror unfold on television; though reluctant to leave, he and several colleagues were soon sent home.  Because he tried to “think coolly” about the attacks, Stewart accepts that this dimmed his “perception of how much the attacks – and particularly the public reaction to them – would matter for the world’s future” (p.94).

And matter the attacks did, especially for Canada’s most significant bilateral relationship.  While not obvious initially, Stewart sketches how the 9/11 attacks torqued Canada-U.S. relations.  While U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci continued to speak about “the two countries’ shared economic as well as security interests” (p.99), there was – according to the State Department’s Canada Desk – “an ongoing Canadian tendency to emphasize expediting of cross-border trade rather than increasing border security” (p.113).

Stewart is at once detailed in analysis and thorough in documenting the tangible decline of this vital relationship.  Essentially, by the close of the Chrétien / Martin era – and despite herculean efforts by key officials from each country – signs emerged “that the two countries were not aligned” (p.114). The book explains that this “political divergence” was exacerbated by competing national political imperatives, unintended tragic events in Afghanistan, serious state – mostly Canadian – communications gaffes and banal, mutual clumsiness (p.111).

He also suggests that this fundamental fracture during the mid-2000s was reflected and reinforced by a heightened cynicism in Washington.  Canada-U.S. tensions festered over the nascent U.S. Northern Command and its effects on NORAD, Iraq, North American missile defence and a litany of border irritants, including a purported rising “risk of plant pests or animal diseases being introduced into the United States by way of movements from Canada” (p.134).  This American malady was most prevalent among ranking members of Congress, “conservative political elites,” including powerful Republicans and select members of the U.S. media (p.113).  While the situation vexed many Canadians, historian Robert Bothwell reinforces Stewart’s insights: “Canadians are little accustomed to being unpopular in the United States, except in some political ponds on the far right.”

Stewart’s analysis of the outlook from Canada’s Parliament is less nuanced.  In time, at least one key conclusion may require recalibration.  Specifically, he claims that “Paul Martin’s 2004-2006 Liberal government had deliberately adopted an anti-American stance” as part of its foreign policy orientation (p.136).  In a chapter focusing on Canada’s moralizing, “non-Americanism,” the book posits that during the lead-up to the 2006 Canadian election, the behaviour of the Martin government “was not just hyper-politicized but set to a dumbed-down Americophobic drumbeat designed to win the election by appealing to the worst of Canadians” (p.198).  Pessimistically, Stewart claims that this campaign “marked the final disappearance of any credible pretension by Canada to be the United States’ best friend”; he adds that “Canada’s list of reasons why it mattered to the United States had been whittled down to the ‘longest border’ and ‘largest trading partner’ and it was not clear how long we might hold the latter” (p.207).

Despite pledges by Canada’s incoming Conservative Party government “to improve the relationship with the U. S.,” Stewart suggests that Prime Minister Harper and his minority government laboured to build relationships in Washington, noting that his team “was not well connected to big businesses, which are such essential players in Canada-US relations” (p.136).  Again Bothwell concurs.  Highlighting a speech given by the gentlemanly David Wilkins – an engaging, dedicated and diligent U.S. ambassador – in early 2006, the envoy warned that managing the Canada-U.S. relationship “will be tricky for Harper, who along with many members of his caucus has an ideological and cultural affinity for America.”  Wilkins understood that Canadians could be “suspicious of the United States in general, and the Bush administration in particular.  Harper knew this.”

Stewart departed the Embassy in 2010.  By drawing on rich, professional anecdotes, a surfeit of primary sources and helpful insights about contemporary North America, Stewart skillfully traces the complicated and increasingly testy trajectory of Canada-U.S. relations.  Then he sounds an alarm: “Canada matters less than it used to, both globally and to the United States, for both avoidable and unavoidable reasons” (p.xviii).  For concerned Canadian and American citizens, scholars and policymakers working to understand what former federal minister John Manley terms “the new era of Trump/Trudeau,” this book is as unsettling as it is essential. (p.xi).


Andrew Cohen, “Turning an embassy into ‘Indigenous space’ is a classic government misjudgment,” The Globe and Mail, 21 June 2017.

As Stewart highlights, from his Embassy perch, he could see into “the third-floor office windows of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and on the floor below,” his senior communications adviser, Norman Spector (p.24).

Robert Bothwell, Your Country, My Country: A Unified History of the United States and Canada (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 294.

Charles Hermann, an esteemed political scientist and former U.S. National Security Council staff member, explains: “external shocks are sources of foreign policy change that result from dramatic international events.” See Charles F. Hermann, “Changing Course: When Governments Choose to Redirect Foreign Policy,” International Studies Quarterly 34 (1990), 12.

Bothwell, Your Country, My Country, 330.

Ibid., 333.

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A former Saskatchewan MLA and cabinet minister in Premier Wall’s governments, Rob Norris stepped away from elected office in 2016, rejoining the University of Saskatchewan as a senior strategist. He also serves as Board Chair of Canada World Youth and Bangladesh’s Honorary Consul to Saskatchewan.

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