During one of his stand-up routines, comedian and late-night host Jon Stewart told a joke that encapsulated the often misunderstood relationship between the United States and Canada.
Said Mr. Stewart, "A Canadian came up to me and asked, 'What do Americans really think about Canada?' And I was like, 'We don't.' "
Bingo. Joke, truth and a growing problem, all spelled out in two words.
In many ways, there is no country on Earth more important to the current and future welfare of the United States than Canada — and yet, many Americans and U.S. politicians barely give our neighbor to the north any thought at all.
Full disclosure: I consider Canada my second home country. My ancestors went from Scotland to Nova Scotia, with my grandfather and others eventually making their way down to Boston. To this day, I may have more relatives in Canada than the United States, and I am quite proud of them and their country.
Speaking of my family to the north, I remember that when my cousins would visit me in Boston, they could not only name every state in the United States but every capital of every state. Embarrassingly, over the years since, when I have asked friends and colleagues (including high-level government officials) if they could just name all the provinces in Canada (knowing the capitals and territories was way too much to ask), the most any could do was name four to eight of the 10 provinces.
I am willing to bet that if you gave our members of Congress the same pop quiz, the vast majority would fail.
Should we care?
Yeah. Nobody likes being taken for granted. Especially your best and most trusted ally in the world.
As President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney prepare to duke it out for the presidency, foreign policy will become a growing and much more contentious subject.
Either or both, for altruistic or selfish political reasons, can score some easy points — and maybe win some votes in the process from the millions of Americans with Canadian ancestry — if they simply remember to insert Canada into the foreign policy debate.
Why should they? Well, for starters, according to our State Department, the United States and Canada share the world's largest and most comprehensive trading relationship. Canada is the leading export market for 36 of the 50 U.S. states and is a larger market for U.S. goods than all 27 countries of the European Union. The equivalent of about $1.4 billion in goods and more than 400,000 people cross the border between our two nations — per day.
Energy (and lack thereof) is on everyone's mind of late. OK, how about this: Canada is the single largest foreign supplier of energy to the United States. It provides more than 20 percent of all U.S. oil imports and 18 percent of U.S. natural gas imports, and it is the world's second-largest holder of petroleum reserves after Saudi Arabia.
Sounds like an amazingly important friend to me. If I were the government of the United States, I'd have FTD on speed—dial and be sending Canada fresh flowers and compliments every day.
Want to talk about investment? The United States is Canada's largest foreign investor, and they are the fifth largest in our nation.
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Finally, let's focus for a moment on current events and national security. Canada and the United States share the largest land border in the world — an important factoid for a host of reasons. Not the least of which being the recent news that U.S. law enforcement and Homeland Security officials face an average of 55 encounters per day with "known or suspected terrorists" on U.S. watch lists. A number of those encounters take place on the U.S.-Canada border.
As the world and the world's economies spin more and more out of control, it would be wise for our leaders to more frequently remember and publicly acknowledge the strategic role Canada plays in our survival. We could not have a better ally, and yet we insult the country and its people on a regular basis with our ignorance and indifference.
For our own good, it's time to change the equation.
douglas.mackinnonsnrdenton.com. He wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.