The opportunity for Canada

Does it matter to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who the next U.S. president will be? Not really. It’s difficult, nearly impossible, to imagine a scenario in which Washington isn’t deadlocked, with legislators up to their ears in internecine conflicts. Canada will be far from anyone’s mind.

This is not a bad thing. Canada-U.S. relations are often better when U.S. leaders don’t think much about Canada. Yes, Americans take Canada for granted. But for the most part, Americans think Canadians are good guys. Our best friends.

This situation – deadlock in Washington and Americans’ positive views of Canada – may well provide Trudeau with a real leadership opportunity in dealing with the U.S. and North America.

So, what does this unpredictable mess of outcomes mean for Canada?

We can take the lead in a major re-think of how the nations of North America can cooperate in confronting powerful new challenges that face us all – climate change, energy, global competitiveness, demographics.

We face climate change together. Very likely, substantial segments of our economic geography will be affected. Our energy future lies in continent-wide rather than national strategies. Key segments of our manufacturing and agricultural industries rest on complex supply chains that depend on efficient cross border freight transportation systems.

Much of the infrastructure of roads, rails, pipelines and wires that bind us together is aging and much is frayed. We must think together not just about repairing what exists, but about building systems appropriate for the needs of the 21st century. We can learn from each other about dealing with populations that include both many older and many more diverse people.

If Trudeau is wise, he will step out beyond NAFTA, which is largely viewed as a disaster in the U.S., and not get tangled in the old screeds of “North American Union” and “stolen sovereignty.” We are not like Europe and are not moving toward any kind of North American “community.” We are sovereign nations. But we are also deeply interconnected and interdependent.

NAFTA and the Canada-U.S. FTA upon whose shoulders it rested were important though not perfect trade agreements. We are continuing to work to improve them. But the trade agreement/border-dominated approach of the past won’t work now.

Government-to-government dealings are vital and must be deepened. But because these new issues will require significant change in our lives and affect large numbers of our people, the key will be to create wider conversations on these issues, outside of the Ottawa-Washington, and Mexico City, beltway, and to build larger informed and active constituencies that will encourage this collaboration.

North America does not lack assets to support these conversations. Our nations are rich in universities, think-tanks and specialized research centres. But they have played little role in deepening our understanding of how the nations of North America work together and how they might collaborate in the future to confront new and powerful forces.

Trudeau has to mobilize these resources – and link them with other active communities, like the civic and regional organizations that work to protect the environment along our borders.

The likely deadlock in Washington and the almost certain inability of the U.S. government to take serious action to deal with the impact of climate change, to build new infrastructure, or with the challenge of changing demographics may well provide an opportunity for Canada’s prime minister to take a leading role in motivating the collaborative search for solutions to issues that now confront us.

Stephen Blank
from Open Canada
2016.02.26