President Clinton on Friday capped his two-day state visit to Canada with an agreement to dramatically expand air travel between the two countries--boosting the business, tourism and family ties that are the essence of the American-Canadian relationship.
The President and Prime Minister Jean Chretien used the visit to underscore the success of the world's largest trading partnership--$270 billion a year and growing--and to help each other score political points for the home crowd.
For the President, the visit was marred only by Secretary of State Warren Christopher's overnight hospitalization for a bleeding ulcer, caused by an arthritis medication he had been taking.
Christopher was reported improved; he flew back to Washington aboard Air Force One on Friday and was scheduled to check into Georgetown Hospital for further observation.
The "open skies" agreement signed Friday by Transportation Secretary Federico Pena and Transport Minister Doug Young immediately grants this country's two airlines, Air Canada and Canadian Airlines International, unlimited route rights from Canada to any American city.
Most restrictions on American carriers flying into Canada from the United States will also be lifted immediately, although expanded service by U.S. carriers into Vancouver and Montreal will be phased in over two years and into Toronto over three years.
Clinton and Pena said the agreement will open more American cities to direct flights to Canada and mean shorter travel times, more frequent service, greater competition and lower fares.
"It will strengthen our partnership; it will create thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars of economic activity," Clinton said.
Thirteen million travelers flew over the border in 1993, the last year for which statistics are available. Pena and Young last year revived moribund talks on updating an agreement that had been substantially unchanged for 21 years.
Spokesmen for Air Canada and Canadian Airlines said they could begin new flights within weeks. A U.S. Transportation Department official said more flights by American carriers could be expected by May at the latest.
The department already has applications for expanded service from California.
Alaska Airlines has applied for daily nonstops from San Diego to Vancouver, and flights from Orange County's John Wayne Airport to Vancouver via Oakland. United has petitioned to fly from San Diego to Vancouver via San Francisco, Reno Air from San Diego to Vancouver via Reno and TWA from San Diego to Toronto via St. Louis.
Friday's pact played into the theme of the trip--that the booming trade between the two countries is benefiting the economies of both.
During Clinton's trip here, there have been repeated mentions of the more than $700 million worth of business conducted daily between Canada and the United States and the $40-billion increase last year attributed largely to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Lingering disagreements over Canada's decision to knock an American-owned country music video channel off the cable systems in this country, over U.S. tariffs on Canadian sugar and Canadian tariffs on American dairy products were pushed offstage, discussed privately by Clinton and Chretien and by U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor and Canadian Trade Minister Roy MacLaren.
The mutual back-scratching extended to domestic political issues,
Clinton gave Chretien a helping hand with a carefully worded but unmistakable endorsement of national unity at a time the Canadian prime minister is battling Quebec separatists.
Besides the supportive remarks he made in an address to Parliament on Thursday, Clinton hit a resonant note with Canadians when he ended his toast at Thursday night's gala dinner with, " Vive le Canada " (Long live Canada).
The toast was a reverse image of a provocative speech given by the late French President Charles de Gaulle from the balcony of Montreal's City Hall in 1967. His cry, " Vive le Quebec libre! " (Long live free Quebec!) helped ignite the separatist movement in the French-speaking province.
For his part, Chretien pointed out to Clinton, when introducing him before Parliament, that every President who had addressed the body since World War II had been elected to a second term. "I have never believed in the iron laws of history so much as I do now," Clinton deadpanned in reply.
The two men also appeared to warm considerably in their personal relationship. For Chretien, this represents a political shift. In his 1993 election campaign, he often criticized his predecessor, Brian Mulroney, for being too close to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
Noting Mulroney's fishing trips with Bush, Chretien said those who went fishing with Presidents often found themselves the fish. And when Vice President Al Gore visited last summer, Chretien noted that he addressed him as "Mr. Vice President, not Al."
Reminded of this by a Canadian reporter Friday, Chretien acknowledged: "You know, he is Mr. President when there is another person in the room. And when we're alone . . . I call him Bill."
Clinton then interjected: "I'd be honored to put the bait on his pole if he wanted to go fishing."
Meantime, in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Christine Shelly said Christopher expects to be well enough to travel to the Middle East by early March.
The purpose of his trip is to revive the Israel-Syria peace process, encourage Israel and the Palestinians to shore up their shaky peace agreement and revitalize opposition among the Arab states of the Persian Gulf to any relaxation of sanctions against Iraq.
Shelly said Christopher plans to leave the United States on March 7 or 8. Although the itinerary has not been completed, she said the trip will be more extensive than his usual Egypt-Syria-Israel-Jordan schedule. Late last year, Christopher was visiting the region every six weeks or so, and he made his last trip in December.
American officials had reported slow but steady progress last year in indirect negotiations between Israel and Syria. But with Christopher unable to play the go-between because of a heavy schedule of appearances on Capitol Hill, the process seems to have stagnated.
Damascus radio greeted the announcement of Christopher's trip with a warning that it would be a waste of time unless he can persuade Israel to make significant concessions. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's government has sent strong signals that it will not move until Syria does.
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.