'Good vibes' launch Bush-Martin era
Date: Thursday, January 15 2004
Topic: Canadian Politics
Prime Minister Paul Martin's first official meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush on Tuesday marked a significant thaw in Canada-U.S. relations, yielding breakthroughs on key cross-border issues.
Martin won concessions from Bush for Canadian firms to bid on billions worth of Iraqi contracts -- buoying spirits at Alberta companies that hope to secure work rebuilding the country.
And Bush also promised to pursue a North American approach to the mad cow crisis and assured Martin the United States will not deport Canadians holding dual citizenship to the country of their birth without first notifying Ottawa.
Martin, however, failed to make a breakthrough on the longstanding Canada-U.S. softwood lumber dispute.
Bush spent close to a half-hour in private with Martin and another 45 minutes with him at breakfast with officials -- in total, half an hour more than allotted.
Martin and the president took an immediate liking to one another, a reception that contrasted sharply with the strained relations between Bush and former prime minister Jean Chretien.
"As far as I'm concerned, I thought that the vibes were very, very good on both sides," Martin said.
"He's a straightforward fella, who's easy to talk to," Bush pronounced after the meeting. "I really look forward to working with the prime minister."
Determined to improve relations with the rookie prime minister, Bush said Canada's stance against the war in Iraq was no longer an obstacle to bidding on Iraqi reconstruction projects.
Washington had previously blocked firms in countries that opposed the conflict from bidding on billions worth of contracts, although they could compete for some subcontracts.
Bush's change of heart was welcomed at companies such as Calgary's Safety Boss Inc., which is best known for fighting oil well fires in Kuwait following the first Gulf War.
"There is no question Canadians weren't welcome before . . . so this is certainly good news," said Mike Miller, president of Safety Boss and an outspoken critic of the Iraq contract situation.
Miller's firm spent months unsuccessfully attempting to work in Iraq. He said the company hoped to perform firefighting services and training in Iraq, but kept running up against an unofficial American blacklist of Canadian companies, even for work they were permitted to bid on.
The policy reversal means the first $5 billion US of contracts will only go to nations that joined the U.S.-led war, but Bush said "Canada will be eligible to bid" on the second wave of contracts, worth $13 billion US.
Officials with the Alberta government applauded the decision and agreed it would be easier for companies from this province to win work in Iraq.
"There was always the opportunity, prior to this decision, for companies to bid as a subcontractor on American contracts. . . but this clears things up and makes it easier," said Mark Erdman, spokesman for Economic Development Minister Mark Norris.
Bush said he changed his mind on denying contracts to nations opposed to the war because Canada has contributed to reconstructive efforts in Iraq.
"They want Iraq to succeed. They understand the stakes with having a free country in the midst of the Middle East," he said.
Despite the dangers of violence in Iraq, Martin said he was confident Canadian companies will line up to bid for work.
"I certainly believe the breakthrough that was made was certainly quite significant," he said.
The issue of BSE, or mad cow disease, took up 75 per cent of the meeting. Canadian officials were also upbeat that Bush acknowledged that BSE is a North America-wide problem.
Bush did not promise to reopen the U.S. border to all Canadian beef and cattle, although the subject will be on the agenda when Agriculture Minister Bob Speller meets his U.S. counterpart on Friday.
Martin also tried Tuesday to trumpet a letter signed by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell promising Washington would not deport Canadians to third countries unless it notified Canada.
But Bush made it clear that while the U.S. will now notify Canada, it reserves the right to deport Canadians suspected of having terrorist links.
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