Podcast Transcript: Jeffrey Simpson
Host: Hello, everyone. I want to thank you for tuning in. My name is James Gibbons. I'm with the Public Affairs Office at the U.S. Embassy here in Ottawa, Canada, and I'm here with Jeffrey Simpson. He is the national affairs columnist with The Globe and Mail and he is a part of the State Alumni Network. He served as a parliamentary intern back in the early '70s and he travelled to Washington, DC, and that makes him part of the Alumni. We are trying to get in touch with the Alumni and see where they are today. So, what was your exchange experience like?
Jeffrey Simpson: Well, the Parliamentary Interns of Canada, like the Congressional Fellows, spend a year working for Members of Parliament, or on what we call Parliament Hill, and your folks work on Capitol Hill. And in the very early years of our program, I think I was in the third or the fourth year, they established a tradition whereby the Canadian interns would go to Washington and the American Congressional Fellows, or some of them, would come up to Ottawa. So we went down to Washington, there were 10 of us. I had grown up in a family that was a split American-Canadian family, but I spent my first 10 years in the United States. And my American family, which was my father's family, was quite political. They were Democrats and they were Republicans. So from a very early age living in the United States, I began to get a bath of U.S. politics. And I kept my interest in it when I moved to Canada and when I became a student in high school and then in university, and I've had it throughout my whole journalistic career. I've done a lot of writing about U.S. politics and U.S. society.
And on that trip, I can remember a number of particular seminars that we had because they really did a wonderful job. One I remember, which taught me a lesson I've never forgotten about U.S. politics, was with Senator Gale McGee. Not many people remember him anymore, but he was a Republican from Wyoming and in those days, so we're talking about the early 1970s, the Republican Party still had within it a number of what you might call moderates. They've pretty much been banished to the hills. And McGee was kind of an odd duck in the sense that he was a, kind of, moderate Republican from Wyoming, and, more particularly, he was a Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
And I cannot remember specifically the one or two issues that he was interested in. I don't remember whether it was nuclear disarmament or something, and you just wouldn't have expected a senator from Wyoming to be interested in these things. And his positions were -- I can't remember whether they were at variance with the Republican Party's positions or whether the positions themselves were moderate by the standards of those days.
And I remember asking him, I said, "Senator, what do your constituents think in Wyoming about these positions that you have on these issues? They don't seem to me to be ones that the folks in Wyoming would share. And what do they think about you being on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee? Because, you know, foreign affairs probably isn't all that much, all that important to people in Cheyenne or the Teton Mountains." And he said to me, he said, "Look, I look after the cattlemen in my state. I look after the coal interests in my state. I look after the mining interests in my state. And as long as I do that, and I work really hard at that, then they're prepared to cut me some slack and I can pursue my interests in other things."
And I thought to myself, you know, there's an essential lesson there, which is as long as a senator -- I presume this applies to representatives -- stay close to their people on the issues that are of real concern to them and defend their interests and advance their propositions, then you can indulge in the United States Senate -- if that's the right verb -- where you have a six year term, particularly if you're a pretty safe seat, and I think he had a -- well, we call it a seat, but a pretty safe area -- you're allowed to indulge some of your other interests and the people in the state don't necessarily hold it against you. And we talked about some issues involving cattle and mining and he was lining up pretty solidly.
I remember another great visit we had with a really wonderful formative American, Barbara Jordan. Now, remember, this is the early '70s, the civil rights --
Host: I believe she is the first African American woman from a southern state to be elected --
Jeffrey Simpson: From Houston.
Host: ...to the Congress.
Jeffrey Simpson: So, you know, we, who were growing up as teenagers and then university students in the 1960s watching the travails and traumas of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and then the Civil Rights Act and what followed thereafter, which was of course very, very well, the Civil Rights March and the Civil Rights Act and then the movement of a number of southern states towards the Republican column -- to meet this woman from Houston who was a very, very formidable, very articulate, very passionate woman was very eye opening.
Because, you know, up here in Canada at that time, we had a very small black population. It's grown since Caribbean immigration and immigration from elsewhere. We had a very small black population. I spent my high school years in Toronto and, yes, there was a Caribbean population but it was pretty small. It's now very large.
So just seeing an elected black politician -- I don't think we had any in the Parliament of Canada at that time; well, one only came along later -- was an eye opener. And to meet somebody who clearly was against the grain, if I can put it that way, not just from a race point of view but she was a committed Democrat in a state that after the Civil Rights Movement had moved away from Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Party more towards the Republican side, which largely remains today and I just remember she was physically a big woman and she was, she was one of these people who just kind of walked into a room and took all the oxygen that was in the room. And she spoke with great articulation and great passion and she talked about civil rights, of course, which to all of us who'd been watching from afar was interesting fascinating, in fact. And she went on to have a very long and distinguished career in politics and, generally, in public life; and I think today is a rather revered figure in Houston and perhaps more widely in the State of Texas, and certainly within the Democratic Party.
Host: Was that one of your first times back to the United States?
Jeffrey Simpson: No, no, no. I'd kept going back on many different occasions and had, you know, as I say, been fascinated by U.S. politics.
Host: So did that sort of change your perception of the bilateral relationship that Canada and the United States has?
Jeffrey Simpson: At that time, which was the early 1970s, Pierre Trudeau was the Prime Minister of Canada, he was the Liberal, and the Americans had switched over to Republicans. Johnson had been defeated in the -- well, didn't run -- and Nixon had beaten Humphrey. So relations between Canada and the United States at that time at the high, at the level of high politics, shall we say, were...strained is the wrong way to put it -- they were distant because Trudeau and Nixon were very different creatures, let's put it that way.
No, it was totally fascinating for me and for my colleagues to go down and to be exposed to the diversity of the congressional system. I mean, I'd read about it; I'd studied it; I had written exam papers on it, all that stuff. But to actually go there and talk to people about how it works, how it doesn't work, and see that diversity -- because they set up a great program -- was very...
Host: Which is still, you know, present.
Jeffrey Simpson: Yeah, which is -- it was very instructive. And similarly, I've had the privilege over the years of addressing the Congressional Fellows when they come up here. And just as Canadians often have difficulty getting their minds around the complexities of the U.S. system, people who grow up in the United States and who have never studied the parliamentary system find a number of the aspects of the parliamentary system to be a bit hard to get their minds around.
Host: Yes, I...well, I just actually saw the Question Period a few days ago. And I actually brought my girlfriend in and she was quoted saying that it was unprofessional.
Jeffrey Simpson: Yeah, yeah. No, no, absolutely. Wild and unruly. No, absolutely. I've had Americans say to me: Man! Our President could never withstand that kind of abuse, nor should he because he's the head of state. And, of course, in the parliamentary system, one of the yardsticks by which you're measured is how you take this sort of verbal combat in the House of Commons. No, the systems are set up in very different ways and each have their strengths and each have their weaknesses.
And on that first trip, I got a much better and deeper insight into the complexities of the U.S. system. I mean, there you have Barbara Jordan, a black woman from Texas in a delegation that I assume was overwhelmingly, if not completely white, and you had Senator McGee, who had these, kind of, iconoclastic views which the folks in Wyoming were prepared to allow him to expound as long as he looked after the local folks.
You know, but politics in the United States has changed so immeasurably since then. I mean, things have become rather ideological, let's put it that way. The chasm between the two parties is pretty wide. A man like Gale McGee could find common cause particularly on foreign policy issues. Now, of course, it was also different because it was the height of the Cold War and so both Republicans and Democrats who sat on the Foreign Relations Committee could disagree on certain matters, but they didn't disagree on the need to keep the defences of the United States strong and to try to contain the Soviet Union wherever it was reasonable and possible to do so.
Host: In terms of the bilateral relationship, where do you see it going in the future? Is it, you know, going to pretty much stay the same or will it evolve?
Jeffrey Simpson: I think it's going to stay the same. I think it's going to ebb and flow a little bit. I think it's going to stay the same because -- well, sorry, let me back up one step.
For Canada, the number one foreign policy issue/challenge, although it's never put this way, is to keep the Canada U.S. border as open as it can be. And the reason for that is because so much of our trade depends upon access to the U.S. market. The moment barriers are put up or the moment that that border thickens, it's an impediment to trade, which means jobs, investment, and everything else in Canada. So it's in Canada's interests to work on the border.
For the United States since 9/11, border issues have become far more important, be they the Canada-U.S. border or other borders. So there's a, kind of, natural push in Canada to keep the borders open as possible and in the States there are some pressures to try and thicken the border for security reasons. That imposes on Canada a certain number of requirements to try to demonstrate to Americans that we're looking after what we need to do on our side of the border in order that the Americans don't do things we don't like over which we have no control. So it's in the joint interests of each country that this border, this vast border be properly managed.
And there's a lot of discussion going on at the moment about can we look at ways in which we patrol in a, kind of, collective way the perimeter of North America since it isn't just a matter of the Canada U.S. border; it's who gets into the United States or who gets into Canada who might want to go to the United States or vice versa. So I think you're going to see some progress on that because it's in the interests of both countries.
But I don't detect in the United States people who have a, kind of, large vision of North America. I don't see that anywhere. I think the United States is preoccupied with a series of other issues. I don't see any hard feeling towards Canada anywhere in the United States and I don't see any particular hard feeling toward the United States in Canada. So I think there will be a continuation of what is more often than not a very, very harmonious relationship. I don't detect any certainly the Government of Canada, which I think now will be in office for two mandates, which will be eight years at least -- is quite pro American.
The one area where there could be challenges is in the Arctic because climate change is changing literally the geography of the Arctic, and Canada and the United States share the Arctic with other countries. So there are now a series of issues which 10, 15 years ago were quite marginal which, because of the changing geography, are becoming more important to think about. Whether it's shipping, whether it's the environment caused by more traffic, whether it's security concerns, whether it's the possibility that there might be economic opportunities there in terms of minerals and oil and gas, I think that both countries are going to pay more attention to those issues. They already are.
And the issue is, really, can we manage our relationship up there properly? Because there could be some points of conflict or there could be some agreements to try to manage things together. And I'm not sure that the two governments have quite got their minds around that yet.
Host: Yeah, as we speak, the Ambassador, David Jacobson, is up there in the Arctic right now for about a week touring. So, you know, that's one of his concerns.
Jeffrey Simpson: Well, there are some things that have been around for a long time. For instance, there are some border disputes between Alaska and the Yukon. Where do the boundaries extend up into the Beaufort Sea? We've had one line, the Americans have had another line, and we've never been able to get this resolved.
I think there's a disposition on the part of the Government of Canada to try to put this to rest, to see if we can't either jointly negotiate an agreed to boundary or send it off to the International Court, which we've done before on border disputes in the sea of the East Coast. So that's one point of either potential conflict or cooperation.
And there's another one, which is the passage through these islands up there, that archipelago, the so called Northwest Passage, which Canada claims to be Canadian territorial waters. The United States says it's an international passage. That could be a point of conflict. It was a moot point as long as there were no ships going through there, or the odd ship. It becomes a less moot point when you look down the road and see the possibility of a fair number of ships going through there.
So is that going to be a source of conflict, or are we going to agree to some kind of joint management, or Canadian management but with the United States involved in some way? I think that's a little bit off in the future but it's something that has to be thought about and considered. And then there are other countries, of course, that have interests up there, such as the Scandinavian countries and, most notably, Russia.
Host: Now on a, sort of, current note, you know, Canada Day is coming up, the equivalent of Fourth of July in the United States. I read somewhere that you don't necessarily have the same support for the monarchy as, you know, some.
Jeffrey Simpson: I know. I'm an anti-monarchist. I'm a small group. Actually, it's funny, the question of the monarchy. If you ask Canadians in a poll -- and there've been lots of polls done on this, lots; I read them because I'm interested in the subject -- Canadians are split on the monarchy.
If you put a straight question that says, do you think Canada should be a monarchy, you'll get a split reaction. Depending on the poll, 55 45, 50 50, et cetera, et cetera. So there's not overwhelming support for the monarchy here. If you ask a question like should, upon the death of Queen Elisabeth, Canada no longer ... or break its ties with the British monarchy, at that point the answer goes up to a solid majority who say, yes, we should. Now, people are thinking of Charles. I think this new crowd, Kate and William, they are probably pretty sexy and pretty interesting and pretty glitzy and they seem to have their heads screwed on right, and so, actually, Canadians might be a bit happier if they took over and Charles didn't actually get the job.
But no political party, no political party has ever suggested, to my dismay, that we have a serious national debate about this. So what happens is that every time one of the British royals arrives on Canadian soil, you get a few columnists like me occasionally who'll say, gee, the time has come that we really don't need these British royals around, and you'll get the odd person in a political party who might say that not speaking for the party but for himself or herself, and the debate goes nowhere.
The fundamental problem...there's two. One is that there's still a quarter of the population, 30 percent, mostly older, who are really pro-monarchy. And if you ever tried to take the monarchy away, they'd go berserk, and no political party wants to stick a -- poke that bees' nest.
For most Canadians, it's not a big issue but for a group, it's a really big issue. There are very few, kind of, public anti-republican/anti monarchists like me -- and I don't go to bed every night worrying about this, so, you know, it's not a driver in my life. For a lot of Canadians, this isn't a big [indiscernible]...oh, well, the Queen's on the dollar bill and she's on the coins and everything's the Royal this and that's all very nice, but don't care. We go about our business.
But there is this 25 percent, including my mother-in-law, for whom this is big stuff. I mean, they're going to get up at five o'clock and watch that wedding; and they're going to read some Royals magazine; and they think this is a way of differentiating Canada from the United States; and it's a way of connecting us with our long traditions, and how dare people like me suggest that we should break with those traditions; and isn't it a funny thing to have some head of state who isn't like the President of the United States who's above politics whom everybody, at least, respects; and that's a better system than in the States where the chief of state is the chief political officer of the country and is constantly being criticized, et cetera, et cetera.
I've nothing I, frankly, think a monarchical system of government is a good system of government for some countries. It's just I personally don't care of the fact -- I don't care for the fact that it's a British monarchy. Our ties with Britain are very good, are long standing, but we long since ceased to be a British country.
But, as I say, I will be long gone from this earth. In fact, I make a further prediction that the Brits will give up on the monarchy before we will because under our Constitution, to change the monarchy requires the unanimous consent of all 10 provinces and the federal government, and they couldn't agree on anything most of the time and they certainly won't agree on that.
Host: Well, on that note, I think we'll conclude our interview here. I want to thank you again for participating in this interview. And thank you all for listening.