Much is touted about Canada and the United States having the best relationship between two countries. Our countries are said to be best friends, and we have the longest undefended border in the world.
It is a right of passage for any new president to come to Canada for an official visit, and while it may seem like a normal thing now, it took 56 years for the first president to come to Canada, and that was just because he was passing through.
The first official visit wouldn’t happen until 1936.
Sometimes these visits are friends getting together, sometimes the leaders can’t stand each other.
Today, I am looking at some of those visits by presidents to Canada. I won’t look at all, as I will focus on mostly official visits to Canada. I will also end the episode at the famous Shamrock Summit, held in 1987.
The first time a president came to Canada on July 26, 1923. Warren Harding, coming back from the first visit to Alaska by a president, stopped over in Canada to add another first to the accomplishment list. Harding arrived on the USS Henderson at Pier A in Vancouver, as the band played The Star Spangled Banner for him and his wife as they descended the gangway into Canada.
Arriving on Canadian soil, he was greeted with a 21 gun salute from the 16th Brigade Canadian Field Artillery, and a continuation of the Star Spangled Banner, but this time by a Canadian band.
The president, sick and exhausted from his tour of America that had lasted several months by this point, took a motorcade to Stanley Park where he was greeted by thousands of Vancouver residents who lined the roadway. Upon his arrival at Stanley Park, a crowd of 40,000, which was one of the largest crowds he had on his tour, erupted in cheers as he took the stage. The huge support for the president was something many reporters were not expecting, especially those from the United States.
Harding would state, quote:
“You are not only our neighbour, but a very good neighbour, and we rejoice in your advancement and admire your independence no less sincerely than we value your friendship.”
After his visit to Stanley Park, Harding went to a luncheon at the Hotel Vancouver where 600 guests were in attendance, including the Premier of British Columbia, John Oliver.
The day wasn’t done yet and Harding would then go play golf after the lunch but he was so exhausted, he could only do six holes before his group went to the 18th hole.
After some rest, he went to a dinner in his honour, where he stated, quote:
The president then shook hands for half an hour before he was too exhausted to continue and he returned to the ship. With that, his first and only visit was finished and it would be a decade before another president came to Canada.
The trip came at a great cost to Harding, who would die only days later on Aug. 2, 1923.
In honour of his visit to Vancouver, on Sept. 16, 1925, the Harding International Peace Memorial was dedicated in Stanley Park where he gave his speech only two years earlier.
No president has ever visited Canada has much as Franklin Delano Roosevelt did during his time as President of the United States. From 1933 to 1944, he visited Canada a total of eight times, but only four of those times were official visits or ceremonies. He would visit three times for vacation as Campobello Island, and once in Halifax as he stopped over on a return to the United States.
He had visited Canada prior to coming to Canada thanks to his vacation home on Campobello Island, but again I am focusing only on visits of a sitting president.
The first visit would be from June 29 to July 1, 1933, when he came with his family to the island. The island had been in the Roosevelt family since 1883 when they turned it into their summer home. The island itself is located on the southern tip of New Brunswick and the cottage was built in 1897 and given as a wedding present to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in 1908 by Franklin’s mother Sara. It was at the island in August of 1921 that Roosevelt was stricken with an illness that was believed to be polio, and which would leave him paralyzed from the waist down. For Roosevelt, this was a serious blow as he could no longer stay for long periods of time at the island, which he called the “beloved island”. All three times he visited the island as president, the visits lasted no more than three days, and were only stop overs as he sailed in the area.
When he arrived in 1933 on the Amberjack II, everyone in the village was there to greet him and the next day half of the village came out for a picnic at Roosevelt Beach. The next two visits to the island would occur from July 28 to 30, 1936, and from Aug. 14 to 16, 1939. That would be his last visit to the island as the Second World War quickly ended any thoughts of vacations until his death.
Today, the Roosevelt Campobello International Park preserves the cottage and its connection to history. The island is also connected to the mainland by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial Bridge.
The first official visit for Roosevelt would be on July 31, 1936 when he came to Quebec City and met with Governor General John Buchan. This would be the first time that an American president met with not only the Prime Minister of Canada on Canadian soil, but the first time a sitting president met a Governor General on Canadian soil. The main focus of the visit was to discuss hydro-electric power between the two countries and tariffs.
Upon Roosevelt’s arrival by train, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King would be there to greet him. He would write later in the day in his diary, quote:
“He looked to me as he stood at the foot of his own gangway, a fairly tired man, and one who had been through a bit of brutal battering. Soon his face broke with a smile, and the dark or somber expression was lost in the radiant one.”
In his speech at a ball held in his honour, Roosevelt would say, quote:
“In the solution of the grave problems that face the world today, frank dealing, cooperation and a spirit of give and take between Nations are more important than ever before. The United States and Canada, and indeed, all parts of the British Empire share a democratic form of government which comes to us from common sources. We have adapted our institutions on both sides of the border to our own needs and our own special conditions, but fundamentally, they are the same.”
Roosevelt returned to Canada on Aug. 18, 1938, where he was presented with an honorary degree from Queen’s University, and with Prime Minister King and Albert Matthew, the Lt. Governor of Ontario, dedicated the Thousand Islands Bridge that connects southeastern Ontario with northern New York State.
While speaking at the university, he would say in a speech, quote:
At the bridge, he would give another speech, stating quote:
“There will be no challenge at the border and no guard to ask a countersign. Where the boundary is crossed the words must be, “Pass Friend”
After a quick stop in Halifax enroute back to the United States in 1939, Roosevelt would only visit Canada twice more, and both times were during the Second World War.
The first was from Aug. 17 to 25, 1943 when he attended the First Quebec Conference with Winston Churchill and Prime Minister King to discuss policy during the war. During this visit, he would address members of parliament and the general public outside of Parliament Hill. During this visit, Prime Minister King’s attendance was merely ceremonial. Churchill had asked that King be involved in all discussions but Roosevelt vetoed this believing that it would result in all Allied Nations demanding seats at future conferences.
Despite the veto, Roosevelt liked King and considered him to be a friend. On Aug. 25, the last day of the conference, Roosevelt addressed 25,000 people at Parliament Hill, stating quote:
“Mr. King, my old friend. Your course and mine have run so closely and affectionately during these many long years, that this meeting adds another link to that chain. I have always felt at home in Canada and you, I think, have always felt at home in the United States.”
Franklin’s last visit to Canada would be from Sept. 11 to 16, 1944, when he attended the Second Quebec Conference with Winston Churchill and the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff. During this conference, King once again hosted but did not attend any key meetings.
It would be another three years before a president visited Canada, and this time it was Harry Truman, who visited from June 10 to 12, 1947, where he addressed Parliament and met with both Prime Minister King and the Governor General.
On June 10, as Truman was arriving by train in Ottawa, King was stuck in the House of Commons before he had the chance to leave following a debate. According to King in his diary, he had driven quite fast to get to Island Park Drive, just as the train was coming in. He would write, quote:
“The Governor General and others were waiting. They said they got pretty anxious. They thought the president would arrive and no prime minister.”
Upon meeting with Truman for the first time on Canadian soil, King would write, quote:
“The president was very hearty and natural in his greeting.”
At the drive from the train station to Rideau Hall, 40,000 people came out to cheer on the president. The Ottawa Journal would report, quote:
“The president himself seemed to feel the warm, friendly glow of the crowds. He was in smiling good form, matching with grin and wave each cheer.”
On July 11, Truman would place lilies at the base of the National War Memorial. He then said to Veterans Minister Ian Mackenzie, quote:
“Truly a wonderful and memorable ceremony.”
After, Truman went to the US Embassy, and then walked with King to Parliament Hill while the Peace Tower played Missouri Waltz, the favourite song of Truman. Speaking to Parliament, he would say quote:
“Canada is a broad land, broad in mind and in spirit as well as in physical expanse. We no longer think of each other as foreign countries.”
The arrival of the president was such a big deal that the child of Ottawa couple P.Y. Villeneuve and his wife Yolanda, was named Harry S., after the president.
The final day of the visit by Truman was no less a big deal than the previous days. About 40,000 once again cheered the president on during his tour of the capital. He would say in a speech, quote:
“Ottawa has accorded me the most cordial reception of my life.”
Before leaving, Truman would give King a copy of his biography. Inside, he wrote, quote:
“To my friend, the prime minister, Mackenzie King.”
Truman was not as close with King as Roosevelt had been, but he did have a respect for him. Truman would write later, quote:
“As a speaker and a writer he is lacking the essential gifts of clarity, force and ease. On the floor of the House, he is a past master of evasion in answering questions but in rough and tumble debate, he scores more points than he loses. He is primarily a student. He is a bachelor and devotes a large part of his leisure to reading and abstract thinking.”
This would be the last time that King would meet a sitting president on Canadian soil. He would retire the following year and die only a few years later. Interestingly, on the day that Truman arrived, King set a record for the longest time as prime minister in the British Commonwealth.
Dwight Eisenhower would arrive in Canada for his first official state visit on Nov. 13, 1953. By this point, King had passed away and Louis St. Laurent was prime minister. Eisenhower had become president earlier in the year on Jan. 20.
The two men, by all accounts, got along well. It would be a stretch to call them close friends as they only saw each other four times in five years, but they reportedly shared a distinct respect for each other. They both shared a love of golf as well, and would play a round together in 1956 at the Augusta National course.
As was the case with Truman, Canadians came out in huge numbers to see the new president, amounting to 25,000. The crowd was especially enthralled by Mamie Eisenhower. The Ottawa Journal would write, quote:
“It took Mamie Eisenhower exactly one dimpled smile and a hesitant wave of her green-gloved hand from the presidential train’s observation platform to show waiting throngs that its true what they say about Mamie. The famous warm friendliness of her personality broke through the official atmosphere.
The purpose of the visit by Eisenhower was two-fold. First, to promote a continental defense system, and second to stimulate international trade between the two countries.
Addressing Parliament, Eisenhower would state, quote:
When Eisenhower again returned to Canada, he was not met by Louis St. Laurent, but by a new man, who had just won the largest majority in Canadian history to that time, John Diefenbaker.
Staying from July 8 to 11, 1958, Eisenhower found a kindred spirit in Diefenbaker. Their relationship would be the most friendly since the days of King and Roosevelt. Both men shared a farming background in the western portion of their respective countries, and both had a passion for fishing.
Upon arriving in Ottawa, by plane this time, Eisenhower was greeted with a 21 gun salute, and 1,000 well wishers. During his drive from the airport to Rideau Hall, another 5,000 people lined the streets to wave at him.
Diefenbaker would then shake hands with the president, stating quote:
“Very happy to see you.”
To which the president responded, quote:
“Happy to be here.”
It was technically the fourth visit for Eisenhower, who visited twice before becoming president when he was the Chief of the US Army Staff in 1946, and the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe in 1951. This visit would be more relaxed than the others, with Eisenhower stating quote:
“The visit this week is largely informal, the call of a neighbour.”
That is not to say that business was not discussed. The visit for Eisenhower this time again focused on the defense of North America from the perceived Soviet threat, as well as trade issues, the marketing of wheat and future Ottawa-Washington cooperation.
Addressing Parliament for a second time, Eisenhower became the first president to do so in Canadian history, and the last until Ronald Reagan did so 30 years later.
Eisenhower would state, quote:
“There must never be a final word between friends…We must never allow ourselves to become so preoccupied with the differences between our two nations that we lose sight of the transcendent importance of Free World cooperation in winning the global struggle.”
After addressing Parliament, Diefenbaker and Eisenhower went fishing together at Harrington Lake, which would become the official summer residence of the prime minister of Canada the following year.
The topic of the North American Aerospace Defense Command was the main point for the visit, and Diefenbaker would push Canada into being a part of the integrated command. For Diefenbaker though, this would result in backlash in Canada, and anti-American sentiment, which would come back to haunt him a few years later during his re-election campaign.
Diefenbaker would have high praise for his friendship with Eisenhower. He would write in his memoirs years later, stating quote:
“I might add that President Eisenhower and I were from our first meeting on an Ike-John basis and that we were as close as the nearest telephone.”
Eisenhower would visit one more time, on June 26, 1959, to open the St. Lawrence Seaway with Queen Elizabeth II.
If Diefenbaker and Eisenhower could be described as good friends, then the opposite would be the case for Diefenbaker and John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy would only make one official trip to Canada, which he did from May 16-18, 1961. While it may have seemed from the outside to be a good and cordial visit, behind closed doors it was far from it.
Things got off to a shaky start, with Kennedy announcing Diefenbaker’s visit to Washington, and his own visit to Ottawa, in which he kept calling Diefenbaker, Diefenbawker.
Diefenbaker would visit in February of 1961 and Kennedy found him to be boring, and was annoyed by his constant anecdotes. He would tell his brother Robert that he, quote:
“Never wanted to see the boring son of a bitch again.”
Nonetheless, Kennedy did make his trip to Ottawa, a symbolic gesture for the two countries, from May 16 to 18, 1961. Arriving late in the day on May 16, Kennedy would lay a wreath at the National War Memorial as presidents before him had done, before walking to Parliament Hill with Diefenbaker. One of the goals of the visit was to enlist Diefenbaker into a $500 million aid program to Latin America in the hopes of limiting the influence of Fidel Castro.
Jackie Kennedy visited the National Gallery in the morning of May 17, where she was greeted by 3,000 people, who crowded 10 deep along the steps to the gallery to greet her.
Kennedy would address Parliament during his visit, stating, quote:
“Our historic task in this embattled age is not merely to defend freedom. It is to extend its writ and strengthen its covenant. Geography has made us neighbours. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners and necessity has made us allies.”
Kennedy would lobby privately with Diefenbaker to allow US missiles and nuclear warheads in Canada, something the Canadian public was very against. Diefenbaker was at first inclined to this but after a mass petition arrived, and a huge protest on Parliament Hill was organized, he decided against it. During that same visit, Kennedy had forgotten a memo that detailed he should push the prime minister on several issues, including the warheads one. Diefenbaker then humiliated the American ambassador by showing this memo.
Diefenbaker would say of Kennedy, quote:
“He’s a hothead. He’s a fool too young, too brash, too inexperienced and a boastful son of a bitch.”
The entire warhead issue would end up bringing down Diefenbaker’s government, bringing in Pearson, someone that Kennedy greatly respected and liked. Unfortunately, Kennedy would never live long enough to return to Canada to visit when Pearson was prime minister.
It would be five years before another president returned on an official visit and this time it was Lyndon Johnson, the big Texan who would bully people to his side. He would not get along well with Pearson, an elegant man with extensive experience as a diplomat, who had his own successful way of getting things done.
By the time Johnson arrived on August 21, 1966, Pearson had been to America twice, and both times had annoyed Johnson, especially when Canada refused to send troops to Vietnam and instead Pearson called for a bombing halt while speaking at Temple University in America. At Camp David in April 1965, Johnson grabbed Pearson by his lapels and screamed, quote:
“Don’t you come into my living room and piss on my rug.”
During the visit, which was at Campobello International Park, Johnson helped dedicate the park that had been used by Roosevelt decades earlier. He would then have informal talks with Pearson, of which Vietnam was the main focus, with Johnson wanting a just settlement to end the war, and Pearson wanting a reduction in the fighting. Both men would also attend St. Ann’s Anglican Church in an armored car, a show of the changing times when presidents would drive through Ottawa in an open top convertible to cheering Canadians. Despite the early rocky relationship, both men had a cordial relationship by this point. At a luncheon, Pearson would say to the press, quote:
“I have an important announcement. The president had two pieces of pie.”
Johnson would reply, quote:
“Delicious pie but they were very small pieces.”
After Johnson gave a speech in which he reiterated the need for other countries to help in Vietnam, Pearson stated, quote:
“The friends of the US and there is no closer friend than Canada, may not always agree with all the expressions of American policy and power but they must all acknowledge that that policy has no design against the freedom or welfare of any other people.”
Johnson would again return to Canada on May 25, 1967, attending Expo 67 and meeting privately with the Governor General and Pearson.
By the time the next presidential visit came to Canada, it would be five years and it was Richard Nixon, who would become the first president in ten years to address Parliament.
Nixon would be terribly mismatched with Trudeau. Trudeau was charming and flamboyant, who wore his hair longer in the style of the time, while Nixon was a staunch conservative but Nixon also respected Trudeau’s intelligence stating to his chief of staff after a visit to the White House, quote:
“That Trudeau is a clever son of a bitch.”
Of course, he also called him a pompous egghead.
By the time Nixon arrived in Ottawa on April 13, 1972 for a two day visit, Canada and the United States were at odds over Vietnam, trade issues, the Canadian dollar and Canadian fears over the cultural imperialism of the Americans. The visit was seen as damage control for the issues between the countries, including the fact that Nixon had called Japan, America’s largest trading partner, which was not the case.
Nixon was also not popular in Canada at the time. This was seen when the secret service hosed down the snowbanks on Parliament Hill to prevent snowballs from being thrown at the president.
Nixon would visit Parliament where he was met with throngs of protesters urging a stop to the Vietnam War. The Secret Service were also told that they could not have firearms in the House of Commons, as per tradition, leaving only the Sgt. At Arms and his sword to protect the president. Reports that the secret service would be armed in the House of Commons came to light the day before, and John Diefenbaker condemned it publicly. Deliveries of food to Parliament were also banned, and an order of 200 takeout chicken lunches had to be ordered for the security and RCMP outside the building. All cleaning staff at Parliament were given the day off with pay as well.
In the evening after the address to Parliament, Nixon would attend a dinner with Prime Minister Trudeau where he would toast Trudeau’s new son, born on Christmas Day 1971, Justin. He would say in a toast, quote:
“Tonight, we’ll dispense with the formalities. I’d like to toast the future Prime Minister of Canada, to Justin Pierre Trudeau.”
As it turned out, Nixon was right about that.
After Nixon resigned as President due to the Watergate Scandal, and his secret tapes were released, it was discovered that Nixon had called Trudeau an asshole. This didn’t seem to bother Trudeau, who said, quote:
“I’ve been called worse things by better people.”
Trudeau would have good relationship with Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, but neither would visit Canada during their presidencies. Another man would though. Ronald Reagan would visit Canada twice during Trudeau’s time in office, both times in 1981, and then he would visit again on March 17, 1985.
While Reagan made five visits to Canada as president, three when Brian Mulroney was prime minister, I am going to focus on only one. The most famous presidential visit of all, and the one I am going to end this episode on, The Shamrock Summit.
Reagan and Mulroney had a very good relationship. Reagan was impressed with Mulroney, finding him more thick-skinned than other young leaders. Both leaders were of Irish descent, and both got along extremely well with each other.
Which brings us to March 17 to 18, 1985. Given the name the Shamrock Summit, due to it partially being on St. Patrick’s Day and both men having Irish ancestry, the summit was seen by officials on both sides as a way to mend the fractured relationship that had come between the two countries during the 1970s. It was not simply a friendly get-together though. There was business to conduct, including military planning, upgrading the DEW line with modern electronics, the signing of an agreement to control acid rain and the signing of the Canada-US Declaration on Goods and Services, which was the first step towards the 1988 Free Trade Agreement. Both men supported free trade and both had similar agendas.
While the leaders got along, 4,000 demonstrators, calling for action on acid rain, were located around the city along the route that Reagan’s entourage would take.
Memos released years later showed that Mulroney did not want Canada to be seen as subservient to the United States, that the two leaders were on the same wavelength, and the revelation that the acid rain agreement was signed as part of a desire to, quote, “throw a bone”, to the Canadians.
The most famous part of the summit, which was held in Quebec City, was a television gala attended by Mulroney, Reagan and their wives on March 17. The gala included the four individuals singing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. President Reagan also wore a green tie, stating that he was green with envy over the massive majority in Parliament that Mulroney had won in the previous election.
Information from Library and Archives Canada, Macleans, Wikipedia, Canadian Encyclopedia, The American Presidency Project, Franklin D. Roosevelt Day By Day, Policy Options, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette, Calgary Herald, CBC