Washington: the Fidel Castro of his day?

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The Independent Online
Patience, Canadians have found, has its limits. A mild and tolerant people, loath to act in haste, they have decided, after a wait of 200 years, that the time has come to demand justice, to reclaim stolen lands from the United States of America.

Two Canadian members of parliament plan to introduce a bill in Ottawa's House of Commons next month seeking restitution from the US of property seized in 1776 by George Washington's revolutionary courts. As many as three million descendants of the 80,000 United Empire Loyalists who fled north after the American War of Independence will be entitled, under the bill's provisions, "to reclaim land that is rightfully theirs and was confiscated unjustly and illegally by the American government and its citizens".

The bill's architects, John Godfrey and Peter Milliken, have each cheerfully confessed to a personal interest in the bill. Mr Godfrey's ancestors owned a house in Williamsburg, Virginia; Mr Milliken's owned lush farmland in New York state.

What initially goaded the MPs into action, however, was patriotic pride. In February this year, President Bill Clinton signed a bill virtually identical to theirs, the difference being that it concerned American property confiscated during the Cuban Revolution of 1959. The new law allows US citizens to sue foreign companies that have since established businesses on the confiscated properties.

As a further punitive measure, the law says that executives of the offending companies and their families are to be banned from entering the US. The State Department has already black-listed nine executives of a Canadian mining company, two of them British nationals.

Mimicking the US's Helms-Burton Law, named after the two Republican senators who introduced it, the Godfrey-Milliken bill would deny entry visas to the American corporate chiefs who "traffic" in confiscated Canadian property. The spouses and children of such persons, the bill specifies, would also be excluded from Canada.

It remains to be seen whether Godfrey-Milliken will itself pass into law and receive what in Canadian parliamentary jargon they call "the Royal assent".

In the meantime the two MPs' initiative has been received with delight by their peers and the Canadian public alike. An aide to Mr Godfrey said the beauty of the bill was that it conveyed Canada's displeasure at Helms- Burton - a displeasure shared by the European Union - while exposing the fatuous jingoism behind a law which seeks to extend US jurisdiction beyond US boundaries.

Applauding the bill, a columnist in Canada's Financial Post wrote: "There is only one way to deal with idiocy and idiots. It is not force, it is not threats, it is not anger. The only effective response is ridicule." The writer was perhaps exaggerating the sense of humour of the likes of Jesse Helms and Dan Burton, neither of whom is quite reconciled yet to the fact that the Cold War is over. It might be asking too much of them, for example, to grasp the barbed analogy between Fidel Castro and George Washington, the Cuban Revolution and the American one.

Which may explain the distinctly unamused response of Mr Helms, whose staff huffily pointed out in that in fact the US had already compensated those whose property had been taken away in 1776.

Not so, according to Mr Godfrey, whose brainchild the bill was. The Treaty of Paris of 1783 between Britain and the United States provided for "the restitution of all Estates, Rights and Properties, which have been confiscated". Mr Godfrey, a former professor of history, has noted that while British merchants were repaid pounds 600,000 in outstanding debts, the US failed to make good on its commitment to the 80,000 exiles who refused to be shaken in their loyalty to King George III.

Stubborn to this day, still loyal to Queen Elizabeth II, Canada, at long last, is demanding satisfaction.