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For those folks who still resist the economic integration of North America, and there are a strident few left, it’s getting awfully late for a comeback.

As Canadian political economist Robin Neill observed a few years back, Canada was pretty well “continentalized” before Confederation. By 2000, he noted, every Canadian province – except Prince Edward Island – had developed stronger economic ties with the United States than they had developed with other provinces. Forty per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product came from external trade, only 20 per cent from interprovincial trade. More than 80 per cent of the country’s trade was with the United States; for Ontario and Quebec, it was more than 90 per cent. “By the end of the 20th century,” he concludes, “the forces of history had formed Canada into a regionalized confederation with stronger ties to the rest of the continent than to itself.”

Now retired from the University of Prince Edward Island and Carleton University, Prof. Neill is chairman of the board of researchers at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax. In his earlier academic work, he articulated a rather heretical version of Canadian nation-building that allots greater significance to what might be called “natural history” and lesser importance to what might be called “heroic history.” Note his primary explanation for continentalization: “the forces of history.” This doesn’t imply an inevitable historical destiny – but it does suggest a natural one.

Many cite former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney and his free-trade agreement with the United States as a primary cause of economic integration. Not so, insisted Prof. Neill. It was simply the natural northward advance, from frontier outposts, of American agriculture and American industry, the natural northward advance of 19th-century American capitalism.

A closer look at Canada’s regions tells the north-south story.

The Maritimes: In the beginning, Prof. Neill noted, Massachusetts claimed legal ownership of the entire region that now constitutes the Maritimes. “In a sense,” he wrote, “it made good this claim with the acquisition of most of Acadia by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the expulsion of the Acadians in 1755, and the Treaty of Paris at the end of the Seven Years War in 1763.” Many Acadians fled to Massachusetts – roughly 20 per cent of them to Boston itself, “the natural metropolis” of the Maritimes. Prof. Neill notes that Halifax was twice directly settled by New Englanders.

Quebec: Canadian mythology depicts the pioneering fur traders as an economic dynamic of great east-west importance. Prof. Neill asserts, to the contrary, that only 4 per cent of French colonists were engaged in the fur trade in the mid-1700s. The principal economic influence in Quebec, he said, was the feudal nature of its farms: “Agriculture in francophone Canada had its roots in the seigneurial system – that is, in 17th-century French feudalism. Because it was feudal, New France experienced a slower rate of growth than that experienced under the embryonic capitalist institutions of New England.” Quebec didn’t go “continental” until the early 20th century, when it began to export aluminum, asbestos and electricity to New England.

Ontario: Following the American Revolution, Upper Canada became “a politically alienated extension of New England’s agricultural frontier,” exporting timber, wheat and flour across the border. Upper Canada’s farmers did export to Britain, but this trade was not significant. Rather, Ontario became closely linked “with the continental market that supplied New York, Washington, Philadelphia and Pittsburg.”

The Prairies: Agriculture drove the development of the Prairies – though the transcontinental railways were economic failures from beginning to end. Prairie agriculture required heavy federal subsidies; and, as early as 1913, the federal government found it necessary to declare moratoriums on farm debt. The Prairies thus developed as a have-not region, surviving only on large intergovernmental transfers. The Prairies prospered only when the region became connected to Chicago with exports of oil and potash.

The West Coast: Though initially “globalized by Spain and Russia,” British Columbia was “continentalized” in the mid-1850s by the northward movement of the American mining frontier. In 1867, the year of both Confederation and the American purchase of Alaska from Russia, businessmen in Victoria petitioned Queen Victoria for U.S. statehood; in 1869, they petitioned President Ulysses S. Grant. The West Coast economic region called Cascadia (British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California) is as valid an entity as the East Coast economic region now called Atlantica (the Maritimes provinces and New England).

Prof. Neill concludes: “The forces of continentalization in Canada have been operative over the country’s entire history and across the whole of the nation.” Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, may have slowed them. Brian Mulroney may have propelled them. But a fully continental Canada is the most natural thing in the world. Without it, we would have neither viable economy nor viable country.


To read Robin Neill’s latest paper, Historical Atlantica, click here.