What would President Obama say to Canada?

23 Feb 2009


If President Obama were to address Canadians on his upcoming visit, what might he say?

On February 19th, US President Barack Obama is scheduled to make his first official state visit abroad—to Canada. Billed as a “working visit” rather than a state visit, Obama will meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to discuss Canada-US relations, certainly to include issues such as the environment, NAFTA, manufacturing, looming concerns over trade protectionism and other matters relevant to the economic downturn.

It appears unlikely that President Obama will be afforded the opportunity to address a joint session of Parliament, as have other heads of state, such as John F. Kennedy, and global leaders like Nelson Mandela. An NDP motion in the House of Commons last week, urging Parliament to invite Obama to speak to a joint session was voted down by the sitting government. Much to the Canadian public’s deep disappointment, it appears that Obama’s only opportunity to speak directly to Canadians may be during a brief question and answer session alongside the Prime Minister, if the Prime Minister’s Office allows this.

Nevertheless, in the lead up to President Obama’s visit, millions of Canadians captivated by his steely resolve, his words of hope and his magical oratory skill may be imagining just what Obama would say to us if given the chance. This is what I, for one, imagine.

An imagined speech by the 44th President of the United States of America, Barack H. Obama, to the Canadian public Ottawa - February 19, 2009 

“My Canadian friends, I join you here on this cold winter day as both an ally and a brother. You see, while the 49th parallel cuts an important divide between our two countries, the closeness of our bond throughout the course of history, and our inseparable destiny put that border into true perspective. 

The rhetoric surrounding my visit suggests that I join you here today as a sign that I recognize the importance of our trade relationship and strategic international alliances. While these points may be true, I also join you today as a matter of priority, aware that the tree of freedom, democracy and hope that gave rise to my improbable journey to the White House, has roots in the stories of Canada just as it does in the United States. Beneath the surface of our border at the 49th parallel, these roots continue to grow, unassailed, nourished by sweat and tears shed in the course of our common, daily struggles for human dignity, equity and prosperity.

You see, while the formal paths chosen by our two democracies may have diverged, the story of our peoples is inextricably bound. From the birth pangs of French, British and native American exchange in this so-called new world, to the enduring quest for human development, justice and happiness, our stories are so interconnected as to defy adequate description. 

Centuries ago, our nations were started by the third-borns of a continent which had driven them to pursue a new life across a vast ocean. These new lives were forged in a storm of both heroism and brutality, one which has left an indelible mark on the world. Informed by the beliefs of their day, our first settlers planted an uninvited seed on native lands, and stole from another continent its sons and daughters, carried in shackles across the same vast ocean to slave in these new settlements. We later added to these, waves of immigrants, who arrived in huddled masses seeking shelter and opportunity on our shores, eventually contributing to our social patchwork through their own unique struggles, heartaches and triumphs.

From a mixture of promising and ominous beginnings, our nations have gradually risen to the challenge of seeing in each woman, man and child, inalienable dignity and a right to flourish. These are the noble ends to which our respective charters point. And while our pursuits have sometimes led to dead ends, consistently we return to the path of righteousness, moving forward sometimes by inches, other times by leaps and bounds toward the finish line. Our journey is far from complete, and that finish line is still beyond the horizon. But we affirm that the quest lives on, and today you and I represent its potential.

Forty-five years ago, a son of ancestors who were brutalized along this journey, stood in Washington, DC, declaring aloud that he had a dream for the future, a dream that one day we would all stand together. What remains little spoken of that dream, however, is that it reflected more than just the aspirations of a wearied American people. In every conceivable way, the very possibility and meaningfulness of that dream were the shared responsibility of Canadians and Americans.

Dr. King summoned the spirit and longings of our diverse and common ancestors, honouring a civil rights struggle which, for centuries, our peoples have often embraced together on the one hand, while at other times resisting it together. Our shared destiny is often realized in grand social movements. But just as often, it is manifest in outstretched arms, close personal interactions and acts of courage that only centuries later are recorded as such.

We are caused to recall the story of Sitting Bull, that great Lakota visionary from our Dakotas, whose beleaguered people found respite and friendship on the prairies of what is now Saskatchewan. We are reminded also of the great Iroquois Confederacy, whose people straddled what most of us now refer to as Quebec, Ontario and New York State, and whose democratic practices influenced the very framing of the US Constitution. 

As an important historical culminating point, Dr. King’s speech in 1963 reflected the myriad of shared stories and experiences of struggle common to our North American continent.

In his dream, Dr. King was tracing the thousands of miles of blood-stained soil which formed the freedom trail carved by Harriett Tubman and others, from the brutal South to the towns of Chatham-Kent, St. Catherines, and Toronto here in Ontario, and as far west as Vancouver Island. 

And from the steps of the Washington Monument forty-five years ago, his words of hope also took flight, landing at the doorsteps of Africville, in Nova Scotia, where residents of this long-standing black community continued their uphill battle for fundamental civil rights..

These stories, these anecdotes give image to the idea that Canada and the United States have been, and will forever be, more than mere neighbors and trading partners.  

It is fitting that my first visit with you in Canada occurs not only in February, a month we celebrate as black history month, but also in the particular year of 2009. You see, this year marks the 150th anniversary of an event in our shared history that underscores our mutual struggle for human progress, beyond race, creed or belief.

In 2009, we mark the 150th anniversary of key events in the life of another son of the United States—the abolitionist, John Brown. A white man from Connecticut and later Kansas, John Brown had voluntarily migrated to Chatham-Kent, Ontario in 1858. In Chatham, working hand in hand with visionary freed black settlers there such as Dr. Martin Delany, Brown plotted a return to the United States in which he planned to revolt against the institution of slavery.

In 1859, Brown made that fateful return and, in October of that year, took hold of a Union Armory and Arsenal at the small town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Brown was ultimately outlasted by military forces fighting to preserve slavery, but his actions and his collaboration with Canadian supporters just a few hundred miles from where we stand right now, sent a powerful message rippling throughout the United States. It said to Americans that slavery was unacceptable not only to African-Americans but to anyone who believed in the self-evident truths of the US Declaration of Independence. Brown and his collaborators told us that not only was slavery an injustice for those who found themselves at the whip’s end, but also those who hold its handle.

John Brown’s actions were recorded at the time as an act of treason, and he was ultimately sent to the gallows. Today, however, as the scars of history give way to healing, we see his actions, and his Canadian collaboration, as acts of human courage, and a prime example of shared beliefs that resound among Americans and Canadians alike. Those events of 150 years ago symbolize the potential of righteous partnership between Canadians and Americans who, resolute in our belief in justice, freedom and the promise of democracy, can literally change the world around us.

A century and a half later, here in Ottawa, I reaffirm the bond which our peoples share; not only as partners in trade, but as the inheritors of a common destiny. This bond and this destiny, far from lofty concepts, are bequeathed to us by millions who come before us, and upon whose shoulders we stand. Ours is the honour of remembering and memorializing their struggles. It is also our responsibility now to forge a path forward that is worthy of their sacrifices, their blood and their mutual victories.

In the United States of America, the people have spoken. Across city, town, race, color, sex, sexual orientation or religion, they said, yes, we believe in hope for the future. Yes, we believe that the world we leave for future generations can be cleaner, safer, more prosperous and more equitable. They said, yes, we believe that our government can and must lead us forward on this path to a brighter tomorrow.

This task is one which I, my administration, and those in Congress have embraced with humility and are committed to fulfilling with due urgency. As the events of the past month demonstrate, we have wasted no time in getting to work.

Today, I reach out to the government and to the people of Canada, as partners in fulfilling this promise of a brighter future. 

This will demand hard work, sacrifice and a willingness to partner with renewed vigor.

As key trading and economic partners, it demands that Canada and the United States take bold steps to secure the businesses of today, while building the economies of tomorrow. This includes weaning ourselves off of harmful sources of energy that pollute our environment, instead building the sustainable energy sources and jobs of tomorrow. This can’t work, however, unless Canada and the United States act in tandem, supporting each other to harness our respective competitive advantages, while ensuring that we do not mount restrictive trade barriers in the process. 

The responsibility we share also requires us to restore science to its rightful place, resisting the temptation to use religion as a tool of division rather than unification.

Fulfillment of our common destiny means investing in our infrastructure, to build stable and sturdy nations on both sides of the border. But not only must we invest in the roads and bridges that connect us, we must build the community, educational and social infrastructure that make those connections meaningful. The social capital this will create is critical to our economic futures, but it is also essential to reinforce beliefs in shared responsibility and mutual well-being as goods, services and people flow across our border.

In the United States, we are taking important measures to make our health care resources more accessible. For far too long, our people have ailed and gone bankrupt in pursuit of that most basic human right—their health. Here, in Canada, while you have charted a different course, one perhaps more attuned to your social spirit, you achieved great success in making health services and supports equitable and effective, if not without some challenges that you are working to resolve. Americans applaud you, and we hope to learn from you where appropriate. At the same time, we encourage you to embrace the successes of your system and to resist the temptation to mistake cracks for gaping holes.

And above all else, as nations sharing a common destiny, together we must strive to further our commitment to equity and opportunity for all Canadians and all Americans. We have much to be proud of, but we still have much to work for. While the reality of my improbable journey to the Presidency of the United States of America shows that no ceiling or barrier is too great to break or overcome, our children continue to grow up in societies where head starts are more common than fair playing fields.

Our laws, our regulations, and our investment of resources must provide equity and advance opportunities for women, and for other groups that remain marginalized in the workforce, in access to public services and in access to other resources necessary to fulfill individual potential. This does not mean wholesale transformation, nor is this appeal intended to lay blame at the feet of the past. We must move beyond divisions, all the while being able to agree that the injustices of the past have played an important role in limiting, for many, the opportunities of the present. Together, and across borders, I am confident that we will make significant progress in addressing these challenges within our lifetime.

As partners in the world forum, Canada and the United States must fulfill our destiny by acting as brokers of peace, protectors of the vulnerable, and as honest ambassadors of our cherished democratic principles and institutions. Through open but regulated markets, international development assistance and, only where necessary, military force, we can unleash in the world the spirit of hope and progress which we celebrate here today.

The stories of our shared history demonstrate that Canadians and Americans are capable of remarkable advances. They reveal that the spirit and meaningfulness of our gathering here today is no mere accident or coincidence. Together, we are on a marathon of little steps, each one taken by individuals who reach beyond fear and cynicism, beyond state or province, to transform possibility into reality for the collective. Each of us here today holds that potential. We must continue to believe in ourselves and in the goodness of our neighbors.

Rest assured, the American people continue to embrace the friendship and fraternity of Canada with the highest degree of respect and value. Our bond lives on, healthier than ever.

Thank you, and may God bless us all.”


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