Welcome, Mr. Obama. And yes, Harper’s hair is real.

Scott Feschuk on everything the U.S. President needs to know about Canada


(Photo illustration by Maclean’s)

Briefing Notes for President Barack Obama

Visit to Canada, February 2009

The Country: Our northern neighbour, Canada ranks second in the world in total area, fourth in total land area and 314th among favourite spring break destinations (ahead of “Greenland” and just behind “the basement”). Canada’s population density—3.5 inhabitants per square kilometre—is among the lowest in the world, but crowded enough when you consider that one of those inhabitants used to be Howie Mandel.

System of Government: Canada is a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy. At one time a British colony, Canada asserted its political autonomy in 1982 after just 115 years of thinking it through really, really carefully. Britain, which by then had completely forgotten about the whole “Canada” thing, ultimately agreed to grant independence, though mostly to stop Pierre Trudeau from hitting on the Queen.

Electoral System: Canada’s Prime Minister is obligated by law to respect a fixed date for federal elections, unless he meets the legal requirement of “not feeling like it.” Meanwhile, convention dictates that upon losing the “confidence” of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister must either cede power or flee girlishly to the protective bosom of the Governor General, who has a formidable array of powers that baffle and confound us. She may be some kind of witch.

The Prime Minister: Stephen Joseph Harper, age 49. He’s known as “Steve” among people who don’t care that he hates to be called “Steve.” Yes, the hair is real.

Recent Political History: In the fall of 2008, Prime Minister Harper won re-election with what’s known as a minority—or “sissy”—government. So far as we can determine, this means he must surrender custody of the nation on Wednesday nights and every other weekend.

Political Environment: Mr. President, while it is true that you maintain record-high popularity levels among Canadians, history suggests that American leaders don’t always get a smooth ride when spending time in Canada. Consider the experiences of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Michael Ignatieff.

Arrival: Because this is not an official state visit, there will be no formal military band to greet you at the airport. Respecting custom, the Prime Minster will instead confer a more informal Canadian airport greeting—sending the foreign affairs minister to circle the arrivals level until you come out of the terminal. You’re instructed to “just give ’im a wave.” The $5 attached to this file should cover your share of the gas money.

The Capital: Your brief visit will take place entirely within the city of Ottawa, one of the world’s northernmost capitals and a metropolis renowned throughout Canada for its two or three restaurants that now stay open past seven o’clock. Ottawa boasts a professional hockey team, urban transit (sometimes) and many working stoplights.

Climate: Arse-numbing.

National Symbols: The beaver, the common loon, the playoff beard.

Language: Canada is officially designated a bilingual country, meaning you can easily get by speaking either French or English in every part of the land except almost all of it.

Economy: Over centuries, Canada progressed from a reliance on the fur trade to a rich and diversified economy—but thanks to Wall Street it’s now on its way back. Yesterday, shares in BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion closed up slightly at 4½ pelts.

Current Economic State: On one hand, Canada appears to be in recession. On the other, it can’t be in recession because—according to the Prime Minister himself—if the country were to be in a recession now, it would have already been in a recession before. You might wish to seek clarity from the country’s finance minister, Marty McFly.

Sensitivities: The “Buy American” provision of our stimulus bill has caused significant concern in Canada, where business leaders fear that protectionist measures could decimate industries devoted to the production and export of iron, steel and film comedians. (The Canadian government is said to be preparing draconian retaliatory legislation: Bill C-77, An Act to Force Them to Keep Mike Myers.)

Timing of Visit: You will be arriving in Canada just after Flag Day, on which Canada’s Prime Minister commemorates his nation’s adoption of a post-colonial flag by selecting one lucky countryman to strangle in broad daylight. Your visit will also coincide with the conclusion of a local festival known as Winterlude, the city’s annual celebration of windburn.

Important Notes:

• Canada is considered part of the G8, though kind of like the tambourine player is considered part of the band.

• Thanks to the combined efforts of U.S. and Canadian governments, the public remains blissfully unaware that at least four American thespians have been eaten during tragic overacting mishaps involving William Shatner.

• Canadian money is hilarious.

• For years, Prime Minister Harper has been “working on” a book about hockey. Just play along.

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