The Rodney Dangerfield of North America

06/26/2017 09:07 am ET

Canadians will be holding a blowout birthday party this Saturday, July 1, to mark their 150th anniversary as a sovereign nation. This obviously will be a big day for them, but as I came to appreciate after two postings as an American diplomat in Canada, it should also be a big day for us. Canada regularly tops the annual Gallup survey of countries Americans love best. Yet we are surprisingly clueless about the place, a failure our neighbors love to lament. As one well-known Canadian commentator put it, Americans “know and care the square root of squat about Canada.”

Canada sometimes seems like the Rodney Dangerfield of North America, a country vital to our security and prosperity that doesn’t get the respect it deserves. On the occasion of our neighbors’ sesquicentennial, here are a few basic bits of Canadiana any American ought to know.

It’s huge. Canada is the world’s second largest country by land area, but with only one-tenth the population of the U.S. Ninety percent of Canada’s 35 million people live within 100 miles of the U.S. border. This partly explains why Canadians know so much more about us than we do about them. But there are other reasons.

It’s our best customer. Canada is the No. 1 purchaser of U.S. exports in the world (Note to President Trump: Mexico is No. 2). Canadians bought nearly three times more U.S. goods and services last year than the Chinese, our No. 3 customer. For 32 U.S. states, even some like Alabama and Arkansas so far from the border they get Toledo and Toronto mixed up, Canada is their largest foreign export market. Our merchandise exports to Canadians have more than doubled since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994, and last year we ran a $12.5 billion trade surplus with them on goods and services. Yet Mr. Trump has called NAFTA “the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere.”

It sends us tons of oil. Canada has been our largest foreign oil supplier since 1999, but recently it has washed away the competition. Last year 60 percent of our net oil imports came from Canada, nearly three times more than from our second largest supplier, Saudi Arabia. In January alone Canada set a new monthly record for the most oil ever shipped to the United States, an eye-watering 4.3 million barrels a day, enough to fill a tanker train nearly 60 miles long. We have never been so dependent on a single country for oil, in volume or percentage terms. If it were any other country, we’d be worried.

We watch the Russians together. Since 1957 Canada and the U.S. have been bound together in the North American Aerospace Defense Command -- NORAD. During the Cold War Canadians and Americans sat shoulder to shoulder in a bunker burrowed into the heart of a mountain in Colorado Springs, CO, scanning northern approaches to North America for Russian nuclear bombers and missiles. They’ve since moved out of the bunker – advances in nuclear weapons and delivery systems made it obsolete -- but they still work together to scramble fighters when Russian warplanes probe the edges of our common airspace, a regular occurrence since Vladimir Putin came to power.

The Queen is still on the money. The birthday Canada is celebrating on July 1 is very different from our July 4. Unlike the U.S., Canada didn’t fight for its independence from Great Britain. In fact, worried about its unruly southern neighbor, which invaded Canada in 1812 and had just ended an unbelievably bloody civil war, the soon-to-be Canadians wanted the Brits to hang around. The agreement they worked out with London, which went into effect July 1, 1867, created a confederation of four provinces and handed them the job of national defense. But London continued to call the shots on foreign affairs until 1931, and Queen Elizabeth II remains the head of state today. Canada’s mellower path to independence probably explains why it’s unofficial national motto is “Peace, Order and Good Government” rather than “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Canada only shares a land border with one country. And that country is us. Our common boundary stretches 5,525 miles, the world’s longest between two nations, crossed by 300,000 people a day. We’ve kept the border peaceful, prosperous and wall-free for more than 200 years. If we want to keep it that way, we owe it to ourselves to learn something about the country on the other side. Consider it a birthday gift.

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