Wednesday, October 24, 2001
The Chronicle Herald

Canada, U.S. need a wall we can live with

By Brian Lee Crowley

SOMETHING there is that doesn’t love a wall.

So said Robert Frost, the great American poet. He might have been talking about the Canada-U.S. border, a potential friction point whose importance – and vulnerability – was underlined by the terrorist outrages of Sept. 11.

As Frost suggests, we are ambivalent about walls. He doesn’t say that every human instinct recoils before a wall. On the contrary, walls have their purposes. But still, there is something in the human spirit that chafes before a wall, for walls exist to control, obstruct and prevent.

Borders do this for countries. Our border with the U.S. gives geographic definition to the difference between America and Canada. And we are similarly ambivalent about this particular wall.

For where international borders once could contain the life of most major nations within them, that is no longer the case. It is not merely that we are increasingly interconnected by a cyberworld that knows virtually no borders. It is rather that growing international trade has increasingly allowed each country to specialize in the things it does best, and to do those things for the entire world. This makes us better off, but it also makes us all more vulnerable to what happens on the other side of those border-walls that still loom between us and our trading partners.

While it is repeated so often that most of us have almost stopped hearing it, Canada’s very lifeblood is bound up with international trade, and especially trade with America. We export 50 per cent of the total production of the private sector, of which nearly nine-tenths goes to the U.S. Trade with the U.S. grows faster than trade between Canadians.

Our neighbours to the south are not merely “another country” to us in the way that the Philippines or Latvia or Chile are. From an economic point of view, we are about as interconnected and integrated as it is possible to imagine. And that has consequences.

The most important consequence right now is that if America decides to build up the obstacles to free movement of goods and services at the border, our standard of living will be deeply affected. And that is exactly what is happening. As a result of Sept. 11, the world has come to seem a far darker and more threatening place to the U.S., and they are less certain than they once were who their friends are.

This has, of course, given rise to some silly paranoia, as officials in Washington have tried to put it about that Canada was somehow responsible for the entry into the U.S. of some of the authors of the World Trade Center attacks. No one let them into the U.S. except Americans. But as smug as that may make us feel, it is really to miss the point.

That point is that Sept. 11 has driven home to Washington how the institutions of a free society can be turned into weapons to be used against them. Relatively open borders is one of those institutions. Whether terrorists came in from Canada last time or not, our border is an area of vulnerability that Americans will manage in order to maximize their own security.

But if that means hours of delay for goods, services and people moving across the border, it will hurt us badly, including in the Maritimes. Over 300,000 trucks enter Maine alone from Canada each year, a number that is rising rapidly. St. Stephen, N.B., is the 11th busiest border crossing with the U.S. Many manufacturers in the region have integrated production processes involving plants in both countries. Highly skilled technical people live anywhere they please on the continent, and travel to wherever they are needed on either side of the border.

Every delay and border hassle doesn’t just raise costs for existing businesses. It makes potential new investors question investing in Canada when access to our chief market may be subject to unpredictable political risk in the form of strict border controls.

Nationalists always present free trade with the U.S. as a loss of Canadian sovereignty. What they forget is that the Americans have sovereignty, too, and can use it in ways that are deeply damaging to us. Free trade is often a delicate balancing of a loss of our own freedom of action in exchange for the Americans accepting the same.

The stakes at the border now are as high as they have ever been for Canadians. This country needs to make absolutely clear to the Americans that we are a trustworthy partner who is ready to work with them to create a well-policed continental perimeter within which we can all feel as safe as possible. Then we can get on with the business of dismantling the barriers to the movement of goods and services between our two nations on which our mutual prosperity depends. This wall doesn’t have to be lovable, just livable.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: [email protected]