Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 47: Canada: Our Oldest Good Neighbor (1946)

Canada is really more tied to the United States than to Britain. She may be the daughter of Britain, but she is married to the United States—without any chance of separation.

A most revealing incident occurred in 1921, when the British government was about to renew its expiring treaty of alliance with Japan. American relations with Japan at that time were so strained that they suggested the possibility of war. Renewal of the treaty would have poisoned Anglo-American relations, which weren’t too cordial then either.

The prospect was intolerable to Canada. Rather than be dragged into a position of hostility toward its powerful neighbor, best friend, and closest relative, Canada would, if necessary-, break with Britain. So the Canadian prime minister spoke quietly but plainly to the British government. His veto was effective. The offending alliance was dropped.


The International Joint Commission

Perhaps the most remarkable illustration of the intimacy of the relations between Canada and the United States is the International Joint Commission. It exercises a surprising amount of authority over the common interests of the two countries along the international boundary.

More than half of the nearly 4,000-mile line runs through waterways, and by the ordinary rules of international law each country has absolute control of all its waters right up to the line separating them. This means that each could use its own boundary waters without regard for the effect on the other side. Here was a situation that clearly called for friendly cooperation and joint control on a permanent basis. Arrangements for this were made by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, which laid down a new code of international law to govern these boundary waters and set up the International Joint Commission to administer it.

The new code prohibited the pollution of boundary waters. It established a priority of uses, so that there would be no diversion of water on one side that would interfere with a diversion for a more important purpose on the other side. The treaty required that consent of the commission be obtained for any interference with the natural flow of waters that would change the level across the boundary. It also specified the maximum diversion from the Niagara and other rivers.

The commission is an international court composed of three permanent members from each country. It holds its sessions in either country wherever it is most convenient for all the parties concerned. In addition to administering the new code, the commission is empoweref to investigate any international question arising along the common frontier and submitted by the two governments.

One interesting example of the multitude of difficulties that it has settled occurred in the 1930’s. A giant smelter at Trail, British Columbia, close to the border, gave off fumes that blighted vegetation. American farmers within a radius of many miles claimed that these fumes ruined or at least injured their crops. The case was referred to the commission, which, after many sessions and much legal and scientific argument, found the extent of the damage, what should be paid for it, and what should be done to check it.

The most important part of the commission’s work is to regulate conditions so that disputes will not arise. This is one reason why few citizens of either country, except those immediately concerned, have even heard of its existence. Another reason is that though it is composed of an equal number of Canadian and American members it has never divided nationally on any question and has almost always reached its conclusions unanimously.

Other examples of cooperation

World War II entwined the interests of the two countries still further, and gave rise to new joint bodies to coordinate them. One was the Permanent Joint Defense Board already mentioned. Another was the Material Coordinating Committee to supervise the movement of raw materials and the distribution of supplies and electric power. Another was the Joint War Production Committee to dovetail the war production of Canada and the United States so that it would reach a combined maximum. To this end there was a virtual pooling of the raw materials of the continent and a mutual suspension of tariffs on defense materials.

More interesting may have been the work of the Joint Economic Committees. Meeting together, they surveyed the resources of both countries as a whole and examined possibilities for more effective cooperation in the use and development of those resources. The Joint Economic Committees were dissolved in March 1944, but work of the more practical Joint War Production Board and Material Coordinating Committee continued through the end of the war with Japan, and the latter body was to last indefinitely. Three other important joint groups were formed by Canada, Great Britain, and the United States—the Combined Production and Resources Board, the Combined Raw Materials Board, and the Combined Food Board. After the end of the war against Japan, the three governments decided to continue these for the time being to help meet immediate postwar problems.

Does Canada want annexation?

Many Americans have been fooled into imagining that Canada would like to join the United States. The intimacy and the similarity between these two neighboring nations have suggested it, and Canadians themselves have fostered the illusion by the way they have talked from time to time.

It is true that there are some English-speaking Canadians who favor annexation. There always have been some and there probably will continue to be Canadians have discussed it for generations. In the 1830’s the English-speaking minority in Lower Canada (Quebec) openly said they would rather have annexation than allow the French majority to rule.

In 1849 a group of disgruntled English-speaking merchants and politicians of Montreal published a manifesto calling for annexation. Their agitation soon fizzled out. That was the highest point the annexation movement ever attained.

In the late 1860’s it flared up in Nova Scotia, where many people thought their province had got a raw deal in the formation of the Dominion. About the same time it appeared in British Columbia.

Annexationism has usually been the expression of sectional discontent—a stick to shake at the rest of the country. People in the Prairie Provinces have often talked annexation out of resentment against federal policies dictated by Central Canada. But whenever the movement has raised its head enough to attract much attention, it has inspired a stronger countermovement to suppress it.

The idea of annexation has never taken hold in French Canada. It has always frightened that part of the country, and for obvious reasons. The Canadian constitution guarantees the French certain rights for their language and their religion. Special protection for these things most precious to them would disappear under the American Constitution. Numerically, also, their position as a minority is many times stronger in the Dominion than it would be in the United States.

Why they stand aloof

Some Americans have been unable to understand why English Canada has always shied away from annexation. There is more than blind prejudice in the Canadian reaction. Something deeper, something more spiritual is involved. Because it is a thing of the spirit it is difficult, if not impossible, to define or explain.

Two persons may look alike and yet be different inspirit. So it is with these neighboring nations. There is much in the Canadian spirit that is American, but there is also much that is not. This is partly the product of the British tradition, which is a powerful factor. As Canadians resent outsiders’ criticism of the United States, so also do they resent American criticism of Britain.

There is in Canada a certain anti-American prejudice that corresponds to, and is stimulated by, the anti-British prejudice in the United States. Yet there is also a strain of anti-British feeling in the Dominion. It crops out occasionally here and there in English Canada, but without being annexationist. And it is most pronounced in French Canada, where annexationists have never been able to make any headway. Obviously there is something much more than British tradition behind the Canadian spirit, just as there is something more than the anti-British tradition in the composition of the American spirit.

Whatever the other causes may be, the fact of the matter is that there exists a distinct quality of life in Canada of which Canadians are more or less conscious and which discerning Americans and Englishmen sometimes perceive. The Canadians would no more like to lose it than we would like to lose our own national spirit.

If any American wants to annex Canada to the United States, he should never suggest it to a Canadian. The Canadian’s reaction is apt to be the same as the American’s would be if some Britisher suggested that the United States be reannexed to the British Empire. Canadians love their country no less than we love ours.

Next section: What Kind of Economy Does Canada Have?