Pubdate: Thu, 26 Jun 2003
Source: Guardian Weekly, The (UK)
Copyright: Guardian Publications 2003
Page: 6
Author: Anne McIlroy


If the Canadian prime minister, Jean Chretien, was really trying to
thaw his chilled relations with President George Bush, he wouldn't be
blowing marijuana smoke in his face.The 69-year-old Chretien swears he
has never smoked dope. But forging ahead with a law that will allow
Canadians to do so with near impunity is metaphorically equivalent to
lighting up a joint in front of a president known for his tough
approach to drugs.

Proposed Canadian legislation will decriminalise the use of small
amounts of cannabis, enough to roll up to 30 joints. Under the current
law possession of marijuana can result in a criminal conviction and a
possible jail sentence, which can make it hard to get a job or travel
to the United States.

Under the new bill, tabled before the House of Commons rose for the
summer, smoking pot would at worst result in a ticket and a fine
similar to those imposed in minor traffic violations. Chretien has
promised the law will pass before he leaves office in February, part
of a social legacy after three terms in office that will also include
legalising same-sex marriages.

The White House is particularly appalled at the drug law. John
Walters, the White House 's drug control policy tsar, denounced the
plan as a threat to the US. He said the traffic flow at the border
could slow to a trickle as the US tries to stop the export of Canadian
pot. Canada, he suggested, will become the new Mexico. "We have to
protect Americans, and right now this is out of control," he said in a
television interview.

Yet while pot may be moving south  across the Canada-US border, gay
people are moving north. Dozens of gay couples, from Canada and the
US, have been rushing to the altar in Ontario, Canada's most populous
province, out of fear that Chretien would appeal against a court
decision that permits gays and lesbians to get married and have their
marriages recognised by the state.

Instead, his government announced last week that it will introduce
legislation that changes the definition of marriage to include
same-sex couples. Canada will therefore become only the third country
in the world to recognise gay marriages, along with the Netherlands
and Belgium.

The story was big news in the New York Times, which lavishly praised
the Canadian government's decision. "Unfortunately, the United States
has a long way to go to match Canada's record of tolerance on this
issue. In contrast to Canadian jurists, our Supreme Court is only now
considering a ban on the antediluvian Texas law criminalising intimate
relations by homosexuals in the privacy of the home," the paper said
in an editorial.

Legalising same-sex marriages is not the same kind of irritant as the
drug law, but it shows the cultural gulf between Chretien and Bush,
the former governor of Texas, who has no interest in moving in the
same direction. As Chretien recently pointed out, they also disagree
on a woman's right to an abortion and on capital punishment.

The two men didn't speak for months after the war on Iraq began, once
Canada decided that it would not send troops and would not join the
"coalition of the willing".

Canada-US relations plunged into the deep freeze, with the US
ambassador publicly criticising Canada's decision, and members of
Bush's  inner circle saying it would take time for the rift to heal.
Only on the eve of the recent G8 summit in France did Chretien call
Bush to break the ice.

A recent poll found that seven out of 10 Canadians supported
Chretien's stance on Iraq. But the reviews are not so positive south
of the border - that is, where ordinary Americans took notice. Many
said they felt offended and betrayed that Canada did not side with the
US over Iraq, and told pollsters they were less likely to travel to
Canada for holidays or buy Canadian products.

Canada-US relations are mercurial, with Canadians usually paying far
more attention to them than the average American, who is largely
unaware - Canadians would say ignorant - of their northern neighbour.
But this time it is US citizens who are aggrieved, and that may mean
it could take a while to rebuild ties.

Chretien's decision not to go to war  was a carefully calculated one,
taken at the last possible minute. He gambled that the US wouldn't
punish Canada economically for saying no. The Canadian economy relies
heavily on exports to the US, and disrupted border traffic flows can
badly damage the Canadian economy.

With his retirement looming in February 2004, Chretien has decided to
leave office with a well-varnished image of independence from the US.

When Bush first took office, Chretien seemed puppylike in his
desperation to secure an early meeting with the new president. His
attitude has changed. Rare for a Canadian prime minister, he dared to
criticise the US decision to run a large budgetary deficit. Chretien's
Liberal government eliminated the federal deficit in Canada years ago
and continues to enjoy budget surpluses.

"The Americans will have a deficit of [US]$500bn this year, and it is
a  rightwing government," Chretien told reporters travelling on the
plane with him to the G8 summit. "If we were to equal that, it would
be a [Can]$75bn deficit because we're 10 times smaller. Imagine!"

Bush did not appear amused. "One of the reasons for that is the United
States was attacked on September 11; Canada was not," said Ari
Fleischer, the former White House spokesman. "The United States helped
lead a war to bring freedom to the people of Iraq."

The prime minister was criticised more harshly for his comments at
home, both by the opposition, and by members of his own party, who
demanded he apologise. He appeared unrepentant.

Chretien will be out of office even earlier than February if his heir
apparent, former finance minister Paul Martin, has his way. Then it
will be up to Martin to rebuild the relationship with Canada's closest
- ---
MAP posted-by: Derek