How a virtual gathering of policymakers turned into a celebration of our permanent, unshakeable friendship with the U.S.

01.01.21
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In what can only be described as a grim year, it was, frankly, a bit dicey to forge ahead with hosting the Canadian American Business Council’s annual “State of the Relationship” gala.

With an opportunistic virus turning North America into one massive hotspot, upending lives and utterly disrupting the very way we interact as human beings — and with the anger of a fiercely contested U.S. election still flying — would anyone really want to leave partisanship behind for an evening to talk with goodwill about the bonds between our two countries?

Well, we decided to try. Instead of attempting to bring people together to dine and toast and share stories and generally enjoy one another’s company in person, as we have done so many times in the past, we figured we’d try to do it all virtually, live-streamed online.

Not knowing what response we’d get, we began reaching out to elected officials and diplomats present and past, asking them to record their thoughts on video and send them to us.

The result was not just a great pleasure — success is always something to relish — it said something profound, we think, about the depth and unshakeable permanence of the Canada-U.S. friendship.

On the evening of Nov. 18, we brought together what is probably the single largest gathering of U.S. and Canadian policymakers in one place at one time in history.

Nearly 70 members of Congress and Parliament participated. We had business leaders, diplomats, the premiers of Ontario and Quebec, the prime minister of Canada, and the leader of Her Majesty’s official Opposition. We even had an astronaut and an orchestra conductor.

Congress can be famously self-absorbed, and it’s often a challenge to get members’ attention. But we had Democrats and Republicans, old bulls and new talent, leaders from the Congressional Black Caucus, the Hispanic caucus, the blue dogs, moderates, progressives and rock-ribbed conservatives. We had members of Parliament from across Canada. The breadth of voices was remarkable.

The gala was hosted by longtime CBC journalist Neil Macdonald, whose famous brother Norm sent in some quirky insights on America from somewhere south of the border (we’re still not sure where).

We received so many video submissions that we had to cut sometimes long messages down to short clips. They were featured in the gala, and the full versions are posted online. 

This is all a good thing. President-elect Joe Biden wants to re-engage with America’s closest friends, and there is no country closer than Canada. The first congratulatory call to the incoming president was in fact from Canada’s prime minister.

A sampling of what we received:

Sen. Ted Cruz weighed in from Texas, breathing not fire, but warmth toward Canada, where he happens to have been born — Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary, to be precise. 

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate and third in line to the presidency, told us, with a sly grin, that Canada has yet to apologize for making it necessary to impose those abrupt tariffs on Canadian aluminium.

Former U.S. ambassador David Wilkins deadpanned that his favourite thing about the United States is “how we conduct presidential debates in a respectful, calm, and polite manner without any name-calling, and without any interruptions.”

Righto.

To Congresswoman Robin Kelly of Chicago, the relationship is personal: “Most families have a fond story of visiting Canada or the U.S. on a summer vacation. I know I do. Continuing to foster, promote, and grow this relationship is critical.”

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell reminisced, too.

“On the Detroit River, when I was a child, I didn’t know there were such things as Customs. I was in Canada as much as I was in America during the day on that boat. … And now we have finally opened the only International Wildlife Refuge in North America that we share, which sits along the Detroit River.”

Congressman Dusty Johnson of South Dakota cited three reasons for his love of Canada.

“(Number 1), my grandfather was born and grew up in Saskatchewan before moving down here to South Dakota. Number 2, you all take seriously the responsibility that comes with being a leader within the community of nations. And number 3, Canada is values-driven. When it comes to democracy, to human rights, to freedom, Canada is willing to stand up.”

When he is sworn in on Jan. 20, president-elect Biden will know that former colleagues on both sides of the U.S. Senate aisle are in strong agreement about a few things, including the importance of America’s relationship with Canada. 

When Chuck Grassley and a Democrat as prominent as Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota appear in public agreeing on something, as they did at our gala, you know the subject is a winner.  

As president Reagan might have said, a new morning is dawning for Canada and the United States. When we started collecting video tributes, we had no idea we’d receive such a flood of goodwill. All those heartfelt comments will live on YouTube, as the restart of one of the world’s greatest friendships gathers momentum in the Biden era … with a little help from the Canadian American Business Council.

Maryscott Greenwood is the Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian-American Business Council and a partner at Crestview Strategy.

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