IF VISITORS FROM Mars land in North America and want a quick fix on the relationship between the two nations that share the upper portion of the continent, J. L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer have a book for them.
For Better or For Worse covers it all, from colonial days to the present, through all the twists from the War of 1812, Fenian raids, and the 1871 Treaty of Washington to the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam War, and the 1988 Free Trade Agreement.
Our hypothetical Martians will meet the cast of characters who have dominated and, on occasion, disrupted the world's most durable bi-national relationship. There's President Benjamin Harrison's secretary of state, "Jingo Jim" Blaine, who made John A. Macdonald miserable with comments such as these:
Canada is like an apple on a tree just beyond our reach. We may strive to grasp it, but the bough recedes from our hold just in proportion to our effort to grasp it. Let alone, and in due time it will fall into our hands.
There's William ("Willie) Lyon Mackenzie King and Franklin Roosevelt, the mutual loathing of the two Johns (Kennedy and Diefenbaker), Lyndon Johnson's fury (over Vietnam) with Lester Pearson, and Pierre Trudeau's peculiar fascination with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Canadians do themselves a disservice when they dismiss their history as boring. Put in the trans-border context and told by two such able and articulate historians as Granatstein and Hillmer, that history becomes lively, informative, readable and, well, brisk: a survey course, once over lightly, rather than a heavy duty academic treatise.
In a blurb on the dust-jacket, the University of Waterloo historian John English calls For Better or For Worse "popular historical scholarship at its best" - meaning, I think, that the contents are a cut above journalism, more entertaining than the usual run of history books, yet less contemporaneous than political science.
"Historians are poor predictors of tomorrow and the next day," the authors write. "Our only utility is to be able to say something about how the past unfolded." That's what they do. As the "to" in their subtitle, "Canada and the United States to the 1990s," portends, they stop short of the present, contenting themselves with a superficial glance at Canada's unquestioning support for the United States in the 1991 Gulf War.
On events sufficiently distant to fall within the traditional ken of historians, they do not hesitate to be judgemental (except, notably, on the question of whether Herbert Norman, Canada's ambassador to Egypt who committed suicide in 1957, was a Soviet agent, as the Americans believed). Diefenbaker's antiAmerican campaign in the general election of 1963, for example, has passed into the purview of history; Granatstein and Hillmer dismiss Dief's Yankee-bashing as a "scandal," and they are right.
But they are not ready to pronounce a verdict on Canada-US relations in the era of Brian Mulroney, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush. Their review of the free trade agreement is safely noncommittal. And the wimpy non-conclusion to the book would never pass the scrutiny of flinty-eyed editors on any news desk in North America: "For better or for worse, Canada and the United States must share their continent and their fates."
Norman Robertson, quite possibly Canada's greatest public servant, put it best when he wrote 2 5 years ago, "The chief constraints on Canadian foreign policy are the lack of a clear sense of national identity and the need to preserve tolerably friendly relations with the U.S.A."
That need still dictates Canadian policy.