In the past few weeks I have been to a seemingly random selection of countries: Bahrain, Colombia, the USA and Canada. On the surface, there is not a lot to obviously connect each of these nations. But there are a few common threads.
A near compulsive interest in Lady Gaga is such an obvious shared characteristic it hardly needs mentioning. But each place is also preoccupied by their near neighbours. In Bahrain, it is Iran – blamed for much of the recent unrest. In Colombia, it remains Venezuela, despite an improvement of sorts in the traditionally fraught relationship. And in the USA, the chaos in the Mexican border region continues to harden attitudes towards combatting drugs and illegal immigration.
Only in Canada did there seem to be a new mood in the air. It is nearly ten years since I was last in Canada. Maybe it was the balmy June temperatures – I think my last visit was to Calgary in February – but Canada’s traditional sense of being the junior partner to its bigger, richer neighbour to the south seemed to have changed.
My first indication that the relationship had entered a new phase came at Montreal airport when, arriving from Chicago, I changed my US dollars for their Canadian equivalent. Even though it was late and I was tired from having been travelling all day, I stopped and asked the bureau de change to double check the calculation. But, yes, the Canadian dollar is now significantly stronger that the greenback.
Feeling somewhat poorer, I spent the next few days speaking at conferences in Montreal and Toronto and visiting clients predominantly in the mining and financial services sectors. For these Canadian companies, the commodities boom and the fact that their banks have avoided many of the off piste excursions of their US and European counterparts seem to have cushioned the country from much of the economic angst troubling other parts of the world.
One of my co-panellists at the conference in Montreal noted how different the country was to the Irish dramatist Oscar Wilde’s observation about the place – “a more mournful, Scottish version of America”. And he is right.
That evening I found myself somewhat unexpectedly drawn into a public debate with former President Musharraf about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. What was interesting was how at ease Musharraf seemed in front of a senior audience in Canada, a G8 country but without the antagonistic relationship inherent in Pakistan’s relationship with the US or the UK. In any event, Musharraf does not lack for self-confidence. He is a polished performer and clearly wants his old job back.
Perhaps debating nuclear safety with him was more stressful than I thought. The next day I turned up for a live television interview in Toronto and, I noted ruefully, spent much more time in make-up than I did in the studio.