There may inevitably be many areas of friction between two countries related to each other as are the United States and Canada. Lately, however, the level of mutual irritation seems uncomfortably high.
The list is a long one: energy, foreign investment on both sides of the border but particularly American investment in Canada, pollution on both sides of the border but particularly American-generated acid rain falling in Canada, fisheries, trade, penetration of Canada by American television and magazines, and on and on.
With respect to many of these, especially the treatment of US investment in Canada, Canadian behavior strikes many Americans as verging on that of a nationalistic third-world country - not what we would expect from a country which is perceived to be so like the US.
And that is precisely the problem. The similarities between the two countries - the common language, culture, and traditions - blind many Americans to an important underlying difference. This is that Canadians have an identity of their own. They look at things from a Canadian not a US perspective. They are proud of being Canadian, and they want their country perceived to be a separate entity, not an appendage to their huge southern neighbor.
That Canadians are somewhat ambivalent about this merely increases the frustrations many of them feel from living in the encompassing shadow cast from the south. They tune their television sets to stations in Buffalo and Detroit while decrying US penetration of the Canadian market. They read Time, Newsweek, and the Reader's Digest while lamenting US competition with Canadian magazines. They rejoice in a Canadian singer's triumph in the Metropolitan Opera while being somewhat embarrassed that she had to go abroad to establish a reputation. What really irritates them is being told by Americans, ''You're just like us.'' The sad part is that Americans unthinkingly mean it as a compliment, but it drives Canadians to do something to prove it is not so.
This puts a special burden on Americans dealing with Canadians. In many ways - mainly in speaking unaccented English (except for some Quebeckers) - Canadians are so much like Americans that Americans have to keep reminding themselves that Canadians are in fact from another country. This otherwise obvious fact is ignored at one's peril. To give the appearance of taking Canada for granted is to encourage Canadian behavior to show how mistaken you are.
Americans also bring their own ambivalence to the relationship and nowhere more than with respect to foreign investment. It has long been a cardinal point of US policy to preach the virtues of foreign investment to the rest of the world. But let an obscure Gulf sheikdom buy a California oil company and there are alarms in Congress about Arabs taking over the US economy. US-owned plantations grow bananas in Central America and rubber trees in Africa, but Congress has become sufficiently aroused about foreign landholdings in the US to require the secretary of agriculture to keep tabs on them.
When Venezuela and Saudi Arabia want to take over their own oil reserves, US companies make a deal with the blessing of the US government and keep on doing business, almost as usual. When Canada wants to increase Canadian ownership of the country's energy supplies from 25 percent in 1980 to 50 percent in 1990, there are protests about discriminatory treatment. There are even suggestions that perhaps it is too politically risky to build a pipeline across Canada to transport natural gas from Alaska to the US Middle West, thereby raising the issue to the same level as the Siberian gas pipeline to Western Europe.
All of this comes at a time of domestic troubles in Canada. The problem of Quebec separatism is not resolved. This is the most acute but by no means the only problem of national unity in Canada, where the provinces have always had more autonomy than the American states. Prime Minister Trudeau's efforts to rewrite the Canadian constitution seem to be meeting with some success, but the possibility remains that the constitutional dispute will yet lead to more fragmentation.
None of the outstanding bilateral US-Canadian problems by itself is of a magnitude or difficulty comparable to what we face in other parts of the world. We ought to move unilaterally to solve some of them in our own interests. Acid rain from the Ohio Valley, for example, falls in New York and New England as well as in Canada. It would be a pity if these bilateral problems, taken together, were allowed to sour relations with our closest neighbor who has also historically been one of our closest friends.
This does not need to happen. It will not happen if we show Canada the same tolerance and understanding we show, say, Venezuela or Saudi Arabia. The lack of such tolerance and understanding is perhaps the truly discriminatory aspect of the relationshop.