AMONG the things Americans should be grateful for this holiday weekend are the decency and stability of their northern Canadian neighbor. Imagine, if you will, a government in Ottawa filled with the revolutionary communist zeal of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. Or the racial bigotry of the white regime in South Africa.
Instead there is a nation that has just completed a vigorous and sometimes biting debate about its future, its citizens split pretty deeply on the future economic relationship with the United States, yet which has done all this within the framework of democratic elections and without the rumble of tanks in the streets.
Some Canadians are afraid of the sheer economic power of the United States, anxious that without barriers they will become a satrapy of the US, dominated by big American corporations, overwhelmed by American culture.
The cross-border trade and traffic is huge, and Americans need to be sensitive to Canadian concerns. But the irony of this remarkable US-Canadian relationship is that the average American pays too little attention to Canada. Except during Canadian elections, or some internal crisis, if you look for much news of Canada in the average American newspaper you will look in vain. Good books about Canada languish on American bookstore shelves. Interest in, and knowledge of, one of America's most important allies is minimal.
To guard against enemies, and penetration of its own borders, the US wallows in huge military debt. Yet, confident of Canada's peaceful intent, it permits thousands of miles of common border with Canada to go undefended.
Though Americans don't know much about Canada, they trust Canadians.
It is a trust not misplaced.
Though a streak of suspicious nationalism lurks just beneath the surface of Canadian society, and though Canadians respond sharply to any perceived American affront, they have been sturdy friends of the US.
When US diplomats were seized by revolutionary guards at the US Embassy in Tehran, some Americans were left loose on the streets. It was Canadians who took them in and protected them secretly for long months before helping them - at considerable personal danger - to flee the country. Americans should have a long memory of such aid.
For a country with a relatively small population, Canada has an international outlook abroad and a generally hospitable attitude to foreigners at home. In times of disaster, Canada is usually in the forefront with aid dispatched to far-flung lands. The Canadians have established a selfless record with their contribution, through the United Nations, to international peacekeeping forces. At home they have welcomed immigrants who have contributed to the creative diversity of Canadian society.
When George Shultz became US secretary of state, he told reporters that his first official travels would be to Canada and Mexico, because as immediate neighbors they were the two countries most important to the US. Much of the press, more concerned with Nicaragua, China, and the Soviet Union, yawned and did not even bother to accompany him on his trip to Ottawa.
Now President Bush and the incoming secretary of state, James Baker III, are off on the right track, paying similar initial attention to the countries that border the US. President Bush has already met with the incoming Mexican president and talked by phone, immediately after the Canadian election, with the reelected Canadian prime minister. They should meet soon.