BorderLines: Fostering the Canada-U.S. Relationship

Nov 01, 2002

The Wilson Center's CANADA INSTITUTE has embarked on an extensive project examining the future of Canada-U.S relations. BorderLines: Canada in North America is a new effort by leading public policy organizations in Canada to encourage Canadians to reflect on Canada's future within the continent and its relationship with the United States. The series marks one of the first open, inclusive, and comprehensive debates about Canada's relationship with its southern neighbor in more than a decade, and the CANADA INSTITUTE is proud to be part of this dialogue.

Throughout this period currents of opinion, policy decisions, and real-world forces have pushed to the forefront a critical set of questions. Is Canada drawing nearer to the United States? Is this good? Should this process be accelerated? Slowed down? Does Canada even have the power to make these decisions for itself? Is political union a possibility? Does Canada have any wiggle room in the face of apparent American unilateralism in foreign policy?

The BorderLines series was conceived by the public policy community in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks at a time when Canadians were being asked to support or consider changes in the relationship with the United States before any extensive public debate had taken place.

North American Integration

The integration debate for Canadians is urgent, although the terms of the debate have not been framed in a way that allow Canadians to see how issues deemed important in Canada might be seen by those south of the border. Opinion leaders and ordinary citizens in Canada (though far less so in the United States) universally recognize North American integration as a critical agenda item, but the consensus stops there. Ideas such as a common currency and political union are discussed almost interchangeably by some, while others speak loosely of customs unions, investment agreements, and governance questions. Most of these concepts are advanced by those supporting tighter Canada-U.S. integration, but other, equally vague buzzwords are pushed by those opposed, such as sovereignty, independence, and national identity.

On June 11, the CANADA INSTITUTE explored the concept of North American identity with the LATIN AMERICAN PROGRAM'S MEXICO INSTITUTE and the PROJECT ON AMERICA AND THE GLOBAL ECONOMY. The program generated dialogue about the future of integration in North America and the degree to which NAFTA has had an impact on identity, sovereignty, and political practices in the three participating countries. Participants in the sessions cited U.S. polls showing that three-fifths of Americans want to pull out of NAFTA and have a negative view of free trade in general. Conversely, Canadians, though often overwhelmed by the United States, generally view NAFTA more favorably; Mexican public opinion was reported to be more ambivalent about the agreement itself, though generally supportive of free trade.

North American integration weighs heavily on Canadians but is given little thought in the United States. A majority of Canadians live close to the U.S. border, which plays an important role in Canadian identity and defining Canadian culture, in trade relations, and in security and defense issues.
Because of its size and weight in the international arena, the United States often treats Canada as an afterthought; Canada is generally taken for granted. Integration, be it Canada-U.S. or North American, is not a single issue in itself, but rather a large cluster of individual issues that raises the question of national destiny. The BorderLines project aims to "unpack" the question of integration and independence into its component parts: military security, foreign policy, border security, trade in goods and services, investment, labor mobility, currency, governance, and culture.

The BorderLines Project

BorderLines was organized by a group of academics, business leaders, journalists, and scholars in a non-governmental (and "extra-parliamentary") process to assemble bright minds from across Canada and the United States and stimulate the public to consider important choices about Canada's future. The centerpiece of the project is a series of conferences scheduled in Calgary, Montreal, Washington, and Toronto to encourage public discourse.

In the past, Canadian governments and political parties, particularly at the federal level, have taken a lead role in framing the debate on what Canada should do with the United States. They analyzed baseline facts, framed policy options, and knit together coherent proposals that were placed before legislatures or voters for approval. However, such leadership has been lacking in the current North American integration debate. None of the federal political parties in Canada, nor the national government, has taken the lead on this issue, despite its overwhelming importance to the future of Canada and its citizens. While problematical aspects of NAFTA have been debated in the United States, the larger debate about integration and closer relationships with Canada and Mexico has been lacking.

BorderLines is geared toward a broad general-public audience and holds no pre-determined bias for any policy, outcome, or direction.

Reality Check

The BorderLines conferences seek to walk Canadians clearly through the issues, offering options, and inviting them to make their own informed decisions about Canada's place on the continent.

The first of the conferences was held in Calgary in mid-September, hosted by the Canada West Foundation. Participants looked at the role of the border in trade, security, defense, corporate integration, labor mobility and implications for Canadian society, culture, and identity. Opinion was not unanimous: some Canadians felt comfortable with the relationship with the United States, others were concerned that Canadian policy was being formed in the United States.

The Washington conference (to be held at the Wilson Center in November with plans for a follow-up meeting in the spring) will look at how Canada is viewed in Washington and how the debate in Canada meshes with politics in the United States.

The BorderLines organizers are interested in a reality check on the Canada-U.S. relationship. What is the Bush administration willing to consider from the Canadians? What can Canada and Canadians realistically expect from the United States? Is Canada expected to sign on to war against common enemies? Does Canada have the power to influence the future shape of North America?

Media Coverage

The discussions are publicly accessible through a network of media partners in Canada and in greater Washington on MHz Networks, and are framed by extensive public opinion surveys conducted by the Canadian Unity Council's Centre for Research and Information on Canada (CRIC). People interested in the debate are encouraged to participate in the process through an interactive website (http://www.borderlines.tv), and by responding to coverage in the media.

In conjunction with the series, TVOntario, the educational broadcaster of Canada's largest province, is producing a "Going Global" series on the BorderLines project featuring live "town meetings" on issues relating to the conferences. The first show in Calgary debated the possible consequences of Canada's signal to the United States that it is not interested in participating in U.S. efforts to remove Saddam Hussein from power. The second town meeting will take place in conjunction with the Montreal Conference, hosted by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, on November 1.

The final BorderLines conference will be held in Toronto, January 10–11, 2003.

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