Turning Over a New Maple Leaf

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The crowd, packed into the cavernous Air Canada Centre arena in downtown Toronto last Friday night, had been trying to control their excitement as the moment approached when their hero was to take the stage. A rock star of politics, he didn't disappoint. Clad in the distinctive garb that has made him famous worldwide, he challenged the audience to remember those suffering under the burden of crippling debt or dying from AIDS. But Canada, he said, with a most un-Canadian sense of self-congratulation, was alive with a sense of idealism. When he finished his speech, his rapturous fans were ready to follow him on whatever political quest he might lead them.

That would be Bono. The Irish rock star and activist could probably be the next Prime Minister of Canada if he wanted the job. But the post is to be taken by a man who spoke after him at the Liberal Party convention in Toronto last week, Paul Martin. A former Finance Minister who has had the longest dauphinate since Brian Williams was first tagged as the heir to Tom Brokaw, Martin will soon replace Jean Chretien, who has led Canada for a decade. Last week the Liberals elected Martin party boss on Chretien's retirement, and the Prime Ministership, for which he has been preparing half his life, will soon be his.

Martin, one of life's rumpled figures with the sort of hair that no amount of grooming will ever make right, hasn't got Bono's charisma. His speech accepting the leadership of the party took a while to get going, and his biggest applause line — hey, this is Canada — came when he said, "I will keep the promise of universal and high-quality health care." At 65, he has become a quintessential figure of the Canadian establishment, a millionaire shipping magnate whose father, a stalwart of the Liberal Party, very nearly became Prime Minister himself in the 1960s. Yet the anticipation that he will bring a new energy to Canadian politics is palpable. If ever a politician risked being a prisoner of high expectations, Paul Martin does.

In part, this is because Chretien had started to embarrass Canadians. A consummate insider who overstayed his welcome, he turned Canada into a sort of benevolent cronyship and at times seemed quite happy to tick off Canada's neighbor to the south. Chretien and Bill Clinton got along fine; Chretien and George W. Bush did not. Canada stayed out of the Iraq war, an aide of Chretien's said Bush was a "moron" and a Liberal Member of Parliament referred to Americans as "bastards" with no public rebuke from the Prime Minister. Last May Bush canceled a long-planned trip to Ottawa.

But the expectations that surround Martin are not simply a function of the fact that he is not Chretien. They have more to do with his challenging Canadians to do something they are not always comfortable doing — to think big. In a recent interview with TIME, he kept coming back to a determination to "set ambitious goals" for his country, and it needs them. For a place that is rich and comfortable, Canada punches well below its weight on the international stage. Its armed forces — once among the finest in the world — are now a bit of a joke, with equipment that keeps breaking down. With a reputation in the 1970s and 1980s for being one of the most generous of donors to the developing world, Canada has become among the stingiest.

Martin told TIME that his government will conduct a quick review of foreign and military policy. He insists that Canadians, after a long period of introspection during which they were obsessed with interminable debates over their constitutional structures, are ready to look outward once more. "The old sense of insecurities about the Canadian identity," he says, "have been replaced by increasing confidence, pride and ambition." A top priority, he told TIME, will be to improve relations with the U.S. But given Canada's present sense of itself, that does not mean that the Bush Administration will get everything it wants from Ottawa. At a time when the U.S. is going through a conservative phase of the political cycle, Canada is becoming more liberal, looking increasingly like a great chunk of Western Europe stuck on top of the U.S. The war in Iraq has been deeply unpopular in Canada, and Canadians are adopting or contemplating liberal policies, like gay marriage and the decriminalization of marijuana, with scarcely a bleat of controversy.

Significantly, the two nations have reacted in different ways to Sept. 11, 2001. After the attacks, says Martin, many in the U.S. came to think that "security trumps trade." Not so in Canada. Many of the "security first" policies that have been adopted in the U.S.--such as much tighter border and immigration controls, restrictions on civil liberties and pre-emptive war — won't fly in Canada. Canadians recognize that their nation faces the threat from international terrorism, just as their neighbor does. But Canada isn't a frigid version of the U.S., and it wants to handle that threat in its own way. ("You don't have to come up here and help us out," says Martin.) The Bush Administration would do well to understand that. If it does, there's no reason the President shouldn't take a trip to Ottawa — and enjoy it.