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Reagan Is Still a Phone Call Away, but Canada Finds Static on the Line

September 07, 1986|Kenneth Freed | Kenneth Freed is The Times' correspondent in Toronto.

TORONTO — The traditionally close relationship between Canada and the United States has been weakened in recent months, strained by political considerations on both sides of the border as well as increasingly different views of world problems.

The relationship is not in danger of rupture but Canadian officials and private experts say the situation is much different than it was two years ago when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney campaigned on a pro-American platform and promised "to give the United States the benefit of the doubt" in foreign affairs, something U.S. officials said was missing in the policies of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Two years ago, Mulroney and President Reagan sang "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," and the President called the prime minister "Kid," adding, "Remember, Brian, I'm just a telephone call away."

Although the State Department says Reagan still talks to Mulroney more than to any other foreign leader, the conversations are increasingly troubled and, from the Canadian point of view, disappointing.

"We call, but mostly what we get back are condescending words about political problems in the States," an aide to the prime minister said recently in connection with Mulroney complaints about U.S. actions seen as damaging to Canada.

The complaints mostly concern trade policy. First was Reagan's approval of a heavy tariff on Canadian wood products, a decision that threatened the jobs of 4,000 workers in British Columbia and millions of dollars in lumber sales.

Mulroney called the decision "bizarre," and all but accused Reagan of breaking a promise not to take unilateral action in trade matters.

Canada is also upset by U.S. farm legislation because it drove down the world price of wheat and other food grains at a time when Canadian farmers are facing their worst year since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Canadian concern was sharpened last month when Reagan approved the sale of subsidized wheat to the Soviet Union at prices Canada cannot possibly match. Mulroney protested but was rebuffed.

"The Americans told us the sale was necessary to head off worse protectionist measures in Congress and to help out farm-belt Republicans," the Mulroney aide said. "But they don't ever seem to realize that we have political problems here, too." Indeed, Mulroney has political problems much worse than Reagan's. Recent polls indicate that the prime minister and his Progressive Conservative government are supported by barely 30% of the country and would easily lose an election.

The indifferent U.S. attitude is particularly galling because Mulroney's major economic policy is to negotiate a free-trade agreement with Washington, an agreement that he promises will pull his country out of its continuing economic troubles. The issue has always been volatile here, and the political opposition has been hammering the government with charges that it is selling out Canada's cultural and political sovereignty to a country that has no use for Canada except as a marketplace.

Mulroney is also unhappy with slow U.S. implementation of an agreement to limit atmospheric emissions of sulfur that drift from U.S. plants into Canada and cause severe environmental damage through acid rain. Again, Canadian officials say, Reagan blames the delays on political problems caused by senators and congressmen from states economically dependent on the industries that cause the emissions. But the weakening of the relationship is not as one-sided as the Canadians indicate. Discussing the trade problem, Canadians generally overlook that Mulroney proposed the negotiations and that an agreement will benefit Canada far more than the United States, which sends only 20% of its exports across the border. Canada, on the other hand, sells nearly 80% of its exports to Americans.

Administration officials express gratitude to Mulroney as an ally, but are upset by Canadian votes at the United Nations, which go against the United States on about a third of the arms-control proposals. Mulroney and Joe Clark, the minister for external affairs, have both publicly criticized Reagan's stated intent to drop adherence to terms of the second Strategic Arms Limitation agreement and to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty limiting systems designed to defend U.S. and Soviet cities against nuclear attacks.

Canada has refrained from directly criticizing Reagan's refusal to punish South Africa for its racial policies, but it has endorsed the economic sanctions that Reagan dislikes and has even threatened to break diplomatic relations with South Africa, a step far beyond U.S. policy. Mulroney's government also declines to go along with Reagan's anti-Sandinista drive in Nicaragua and has regularly criticized the U.S.-supported governments in El Salvador and Guatemala.

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