Sun, Dec 14, 2003 - Page 6 News List

New PM wants better US-Canada ties

NORTH OF THE BORDER Liberal Canada has been looked at askance by the conservative George W. Bush administration; Paul Martin wants to patch things up

REUTERS , OTTAWA

New Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin gestures as he talks to reporters during a news conference in Ottawa on Friday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

With a new prime minister and cabinet sworn in on Friday, the Canadian government said it would launch "a more sophisticated relationship" with the US, after a stormy few years.

Paul Martin, who took over as prime minister from a retiring Jean Chretien on Friday morning, said he would discuss bilateral issues with US President George W. Bush by phone tomorrow. Martin also said he would meet with Bush at a January summit in Mexico.

"We have to restore the tone of relations between our two nations," Martin said in French at a news conference.

Canada and the US have often been at odds in the past -- notably over Cuba and the Vietnam war -- but relations have become increasingly strained in recent years, thanks to a series of trade disputes, and political disagreements over the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Canada's liberal attitudes on social issues, such as same-sex marriages or decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana, have also unsettled the far more conservative Bush administration. And while Chretien had warm personal ties with Bill Clinton, his relationship with Bush would best be described as cool.

To underscore the importance Martin is putting on the ties -- and the world's largest bilateral trading relationship, which is worth more than US$1 billion a day -- he will personally chair a new cabinet committee on Canada-US relations.

The panel will be supported by a Canada-US Secretariat in the Privy Council Office, the highest-ranking civil servant body in the country.

"It is very clear the Prime Minister intends to focus on Canada-US [relations]," Foreign Minister Bill Graham said.

"He intends to focus on the fact we are a country in North America with the most powerful neighbor in the world beside us," Graham said. "He wants those relations to be the best they can possibly be."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher made similarly encouraging remarks.

"We look forward to establishing very quickly the kind of solid working relationships with members of the new government that we've always enjoyed with our friends in Canada. And we'll try to make this relationship continue to grow," he said.

Still, new Justice Minister Irwin Cotler said he backed the Chretien government's legislation on marijuana as well as its overall direction on legalizing gay marriage.

And, while the countries remain at odds in trade disputes over softwood lumber and wheat shipments, Martin appears to have made early conciliatory moves in the defense and security portfolios -- issues that have irked a security-conscious Washington.

His new defense minister is David Pratt, one of the few Liberal Party members who opposed Chretien's policy to not support the US invasion of Iraq. Pratt has also called for substantial increases in military spending and Martin said on Friday there would be a defense policy review.

Anne McLellan who was named deputy prime minister on Friday, will also head a new Department of Public Safety, aimed at tightening domestic and border security.

"Canada and the US share certain security concerns. I think this portfolio will play an important role in relation to Canada and the US," McLellan said.

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