December 14, 2005

Don’t Dictate to Me, Canada’s Prime Minister Martin Tells USA

By Allan Dowd

RICHMOND, British Columbia -- Prime Minister Paul Martin escalated a war of words with the United States on Wednesday, telling Washington not to dictate to him what topics he can raise in the run-up to Canada's January 23 election.

But U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins, who warned Canadian politicians on Tuesday not to bash the United States as part of their campaigning, denied on Wednesday he was trying to control the election debate.

Martin -- who has regularly attacked the U.S. stance on a bilateral trade dispute over softwood lumber and also criticized Washington's approach to climate change -- took aim at Wilkins's warning for a second consecutive day.

"When it comes to defending Canadian values, when it comes to standing up for Canadian interests, I'm going to call it like I see it," he told reporters in a lumber yard in Richmond, British Columbia. "I am not going to be dictated to as to the subjects I should raise."

Although Martin came to power in December 2003 promising to repair relations with the United States that were damaged by his predecessor's decision not to take part in the Iraq War, he has shown little hesitation in attacking Washington.

The two sides are locked in a protracted dispute over the U.S. decision to slap tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber shipments on the grounds they are unfairly subsidized. Canada says its lumber producers are not subsidized.

Ottawa is fighting the case through various trade panels and complains Washington is not respecting its obligations under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"This dispute with the United States demands leadership at the national level in Canada, even if that leadership happens to rankle some in the U.S.," said Martin, whose minority Liberal government fell last month over a corruption scandal.

Martin may feel he is on safe ground politically, since polls show most Canadians dislike U.S. President George W. Bush. But Wilkins said the continued attacks could start undermining the close relationship between the two countries.

Wilkins said his comments were aimed at improving relations between two major trading partners, and had "no intention of in any way affecting an election which is the business of Canadians."

"I don't presume I can dictate to anybody," Wilkins said after addressing a forum in Ottawa.

Martin also attacked Stephen Harper, leader of the main opposition Conservative party, saying he had been silent on the softwood lumber issue.

Harper, who criticizes what he says is Martin's needless antagonism of the Bush administration, knows that his electoral chances could be fatally undermined if he allows himself to be portrayed as too pro-American.

"I actually think the (U.S.) ambassador's intervention was inappropriate... I don't think foreign ambassadors should be expressing their views, or intervening in an election," Harper told reporters in Vancouver.

But Jack Layton, leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party, who has demanded the Liberals take a tougher line with Washington in the softwood fight, dismissed Martin's comments as "shameless posturing."

"Whipping up the rhetoric about George Bush is very easy to do... Canadians have known that the Liberals will say anything in an election to get elected. I think now the ambassador has discovered the same thing," Layton said.

Harper equated Martin's dealings with the United States on softwood to a kid who calls names but is afraid to fight. "He hasn't thrown a punch. He couldn't throw a punch to save his life," he said.

(With reporting by Randall Palmer in Ottawa and Wency Leung in Vancouver)