Laurier would not have recognized the words we use today to describe the cross-border relationship with America, and he would have marvelled at the size of the exchanges between our two nations. What he would have felt entirely at home with, however, is the perennial nature of the challenge Canada faces in managing its complex and indispensable relationship with America. The advice that Laurier gave to Canadians throughout his career is just as apposite as it was a century ago: we can neither neglect nor retreat from our relationship with America. We can only move forward and seek to shape it to our purposes….

Providence and history have placed us here in North America, and prudence and self-interest have made us increasingly throw in our economic lot with the US. Our future, as Laurier so clearly saw, can only be protected and enriched by nurturing this relationship and putting it on an ever sounder institutional footing.

Indeed, if there is a theme that dominates the thinking of those charged with reflecting on and managing this vast and unwieldy relationship, it is that the institutional and legal framework that supports our economic partnership is outdated, patchy, and insufficient. It is not to be cast aside, but certainly requires modernization and expansion, not least to respond to the weaknesses revealed by the anti-trade sentiment (especially among the trade unions), protectionism, and Buy American policies the present recession has given rise to.

Our approach to America cannot, however, just be about us. It must also be about what the US wants and needs. One former Canadian official in Washington tells the story of meeting Senator John McCain to brief him on some issue of pressing importance to Canadians. This powerful senator’s response? “We never hear from you guys except when you want something.”

Succeeding in making a breakthrough in Canada–US relations, then, requires us to think about what Americans want. Putting a broad range of interests on the table allows us to make trade-offs that are attractive to Americans. Being a dependable ally to an America seeking friends in
global conflicts in the Middle East, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, and other conflict zones is part of it.

That means not merely being willing to say the right things when Canada’s interests and America’s coincide, but being willing and able to risk blood and treasure when the circumstances call for it. Canada’s willing participation in NATO missions in both the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan won us important bargaining chips with America. Our sudden and unexplained withdrawal of our all-but promised support for the Anti-Ballistic Missile System, by contrast, deeply damaged our standing and our credibility.

America also wants to feel safer at home. A common North American security perimeter with shared standards around who is admitted to our continental space plus enhanced policing of potential or actual terrorism suspects and international organized crime would be a good start. Our best strategy is to engage the Americans as deeply as we can on establishing safe standards, sharing information, and building trust that we will do everything humanly possible to ensure that our territory can never be used to threaten America. We have made significant progress under projects like the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America, but we can carry this budding relationship to higher levels of cooperation and confidence-building.

And America too has a deep interest in keeping the border open. Members of Congress from border states are keenly aware of the significance of open borders for the success of their own economies. Many industries across the US know that their production processes are spread
on both sides of the border. They need certainty that open access will be maintained. Washington not only wants to worry less about the border, but it wants it to be easier to administer. And Washington wants to make sure that access to Canadian markets is kept as open as possible as well. All of these facts give us tools to work with.

Most of the ideas that Canada should be prepared to put on the table are already part of current public debate. What is lacking now is a Canadian government willing to take that indispensable lead that alone will give us any hope of moving our relationship with America to a new level of certainty, intimacy, and mutual confidence.

What to Ask For

At a minimum, Canada should be seeking:

A new treaty on continental security and a common external tariff. We already collaborate successfully with the Americans on continental air defence through NORAD (North American Aerospace Defence Command). What we want now is to establish a jointly administered perimeter around North America, one that has a common tariff on foreign goods. In an ideal world, we might also aim for agreed-to standards for admitting non–North American nationals, although America’s current immigration angst may make that difficult. But the prize is worth having: by creating such a “perimeter border” around the continent, we move administrative and policing pressures from the choke points at the physical Canada–US border because issues involving third countries are handled and resolved elsewhere.

A new joint commission on border management. We already have an International Joint Commission tying Canada and the US together to manage trans-border waters. It could serve as a model for  an autonomous body with a mandate and a budget from both countries to resolve border infrastructure and administration issues. It would help cut through the bureaucratic and political fog that surround decision-making about the border. It is taking decades simply to build a new crossing connecting Windsor and Detroit. Clearly, a powerful new institutional structure is required with a strong mandate to shoulder aside bureaucratic and other obstacles, and a budget to match.

A new joint committee of Congress and Parliament on Canadian–American issues. In Canada, we always lament our inability to get the attention of policymakers in Washington for issues critical to the Canada–US relationship. By creating a formal joint body, composed of equal numbers of members of both national legislatures, co-chaired by a Canadian and an American, required to meet regularly and frequently, and empowered to hold hearings, summon witnesses, and issue reports to the two originating bodies, we move continental issues into the heart of their decisions.

A nice twist would be to recognize that the prime minister of Canada is both our leading legislator and the effective head of our executive, whereas these two functions are separated in the American system. We make a mistake by focusing all prime ministerial attention on relations with the president, leaving the leaders of the legislature in Washington out of the conversation. Canada, through the prime minister, needs to engage the Speaker of the House and the leadership of both parties in both houses on a regular basis.

A joint tribunal on issues that arise under our various cross-border agreements. Building the mutual confidence and trust that make joint decision-making possible requires a sense that whatever rules are agreed to will be enforced fairly and without regard to competing national interests.

While the dispute settlement mechanism created by the original free trade agreement was a step in the right direction, and has often been unfairly maligned by its critics, that mechanism is clearly inadequate to deal with adjudication of the potential disputes that might arise within the
broad array of agreements and institutions proposed here. Separation between those who make the rules and those who interpret and apply them is a cornerstone of institutional legitimacy. We need to make a new court, staffed by judges appointed by both sides and charged with the impartial application of all the new rules of continental cooperation.

Anyone can create bi-national institutions. The trick is to create institutions (like the IJC and NORAD) where Canada is not merely at the table with the US but is recognized by the US as an equal partner at that table, with equal weight in the decisions to be taken. That must always be the underlying objective of every negotiation we undertake.

We have done it before, and we can do it again. But only if we do as Sir Wilfrid did and boldly take the lead.

From The Canadian Century: Moving out of America’s Shadow. Copyright © 2010 by Brian Lee Crowley, Jason Clemens and Niels Veldhuis. Published by arrangement with Key Porter Books for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (