TORONTO - The American flag was waving and George W Bush was confidently strutting across the TV screen in military fatigues. You might think this television ad was for the U.S. president's campaign for re-election, but it's actually a Canadian ad that began running last week for the left-wing New Democratic Party.
The voiceover accused the two front-runners in Canada's upcoming national election of being "too close" to George W. Bush and sacrificing Canadian "independence."
Canadians go to the polls June 28 and, as the race gets closer and gets nastier (by Canadian standards), the charge of being too close to President Bush is being flung about with startling regularity. Liberal Party Prime Minister Paul Martin accuses his main competitor, Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party, of being an "American in Canadian clothing." The head of the NDP, Jack Layton, accuses them both of wanting to "make Canada into the 51st state."
Mr. Harper has a slight lead over incumbent Martin and looks headed for a minority government. This is a remarkable turnaround in just four weeks of campaigning. But Mr. Harper also has the most to lose by being labeled Mr. Bush's lapdog.
Mr. Harper has been unswerving in his support of the Bush administration. Last year, he wrote a letter to a U.S. business newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, apologizing for Canada's refusal to go to war with the United States in Iraq. Polls have indicated that more than 75 percent of Canadians thought the war was a bad idea.
During the debate among the four leading candidates for prime minister, almost a third of the time was spent arguing about how the candidates would relate to the United States. Mr. Harper was the subject of much of the vitriol, but Mr. Martin also came in for attacks. NDP leader Layton was criticized for being "anti-American," a far less serious charge.
It's hard to know exactly how the epithets will hurt the candidates, but, according to Stephen Clarkson, a political scientist, "There is a long-standing belief in Canada that political leaders can not be seen to be too close to Washington, but at the same time must be seen to protect the enormous economic relationship between the two nations."
So friendly, yet not too friendly, is the idea. It makes for a difficult political tightrope walk.
In the United States, elections are full of debate over how America should project its power abroad (or not). In countries like Canada, which have little influence on the world stage, the opposite is true. Here the discussion is about how to deal with such a powerful neighbor without getting crushed.
Canadians often repeat a famous remark by former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau: Living next the United States is like being "a mouse in bed with an elephant no matter how friendly the elephant one is very affected by every twitch and grunt."
Most nations today struggle with their relationship to the world's only superpower, but for Canadians the issue is far more poignant. Besides the obvious proximity, Canada's economy is utterly dependent on the United States; more than 34 percent of Canada's GDP comes directly from trade with its southern neighbor.
Naturally, the countries are intertwined. American books and magazines utterly dominate in shops, and most Canadian homes are close enough to America to receive the entire range of U.S. television signals.
The superficial similarities in language and accent makes Canadians inclined to define themselves in the negative: "We're not Americans."
"I think the only succinct way to describe how Canadians feel about Americans is to say that we can't stop thinking about our relationship to them," quipped professor Mark Kingwell, a philosopher and popular Canadian author and pundit.
"Other countries worry about" the United States, he said. "But not as acutely as Canadians."
The task of playing the U.S. card to smear fellow politicians has been made dramatically easier by the staggering unpopularity of the U.S. president. Most insults being slung around this campaign are about Mr. Bush, not the United States.
"It's the (Bush) administration people don't like," according to historian Robert Bothwell, "not the United States."
Polls here have shown as many as 80 percent of Canadians think Mr. Bush is bad for Canada. This is unprecedented.
"There were some American presidents who weren't terribly popular in Canada like Richard Nixon," said Mr. Bothwell. "But there was not the same fear and loathing of Nixon that there is of George W. Bush."