In The Media

The permanent Canadian campaign

In Canada-US relations, all politics is local. That means taking our game to every state,
using digital diplomacy.

by Colin Robertson

April 24, 2013

Conflict creates headlines. No surprise then that much recent coverage of Canada-US relations has focused on the president’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and, to a lesser extent, the Windsor-Detroit bridge.

We’ve now got the bridge permit, an important achievement that reflects over a decade of hard slogging by all levels of government.

That effort and the continuing work at the state level over Keystone XL underlines why the campaign in support of Canadian interests in the USA must be permanent.

It means a thousand points of contact. In Canada-US relations, all politics is local. In practical terms this means taking our game to the states, because by the time problems reach Congress, we are playing defence.

The recent decision to reduce, as part of budget paring, our representation in the US to fifteen offices is regrettable. It shows a lack of imagination in the how-to of diplomacy. We need to be in every state and we can be there, well within budget, by doing diplomacy differently.

What we need in the USA is not the traditional diplomat working from offices of bricks and mortar but digital age diplomacy. Recruit from the million-plus star-spangled Canadians living and working in the United States. In this new world it is not the black tie, but rather the BlackBerry and the new media of the blogosphere, Twitter, and Facebook that are the vital tools of trade.

Let these new-age diplomats work from home. Encourage the use and promotion of Canadian products and services in their outreach. Use their ears and eyes to spot opportunities and their voice to head off potential trade actions aimed at Canada, either directly or collaterally.

A half century ago, trade and commerce minister George Hees told the Trade Commissioner Service to “bust your ass” for Canada. His instruction still stands.

One of our goals should be to support associations at the state and regional level that facilitate cross-border business.

For inspiration at the local level, look to the highly successful Canada-Arizona Business Council. A decade ago, it set out to help increase trade with the specific objective of recruiting a hundred members and to increase the number of weekly Canada- Arizona direct flights from eight to 100.

With inspired leadership from founder Glenn Williamson, they long ago reached their recruitment target and, during snowbird season, there are 88 flights a week. In 2011 the CABC estimates over 11,200 Canadians invested in winter homes in Phoenix.

The commercial story is equally successful. Goods worth an estimated $3.5 billion were traded between Arizona and Canada in 2011. Canadian trade and investment supports 150,000 Arizona jobs.

Bombardier is designing and supplying all of the system-wide electrical and mechanical equipment for Phoenix’s new Sky Train to the Airport. Earlier this month, Winnipeg-based manufacturer New Flyer Industries won a contract to supply 120 buses to the Phoenix transit system.

Regional associations are also important. And earlier this month in Cleveland, the Council of the Great Lakes Region held their inaugural meeting with the objective of promoting sustainable prosperity for the eight states, Ontario, and Quebec.

Launch co-chairs Matthew Mendelsohn of the Mowat Institute and David Kocan of the Canada-US Law Institute noted that “federal, provincial, state and municipal governments will be at the table, but environmental organizations and the private sector will run the organization.”

The most successful model for regional associations is the Pacific Northwest Economic Region, headquartered in Seattle. Operating since 1991, its membership includes ten legislative jurisdictions—five states, three provinces and two territories— with representation from business and community groups. It shepherded passage of the enhanced drivers’ licence, and its 18 working groups tackle everything from invasive species to cross-border livestock health.

The emphasis is on practical results and heading off threats like the new fee Homeland Security has proposed to collect at the land border, and a border tax on cargo containers trans-shipped through Canada or Mexico.

PNWER recently created a page on Idea Scale to look at practical ideas that will advance and help keep evergreen the Beyond the Border and Regulatory Cooperation Council initiatives. Topics under discussion include cross-accreditation for customs officers, renewable energy standards, and mobility for construction trades.

Within the hidden wiring of our states, provinces, and territories, often acting in regional concert, a great deal of unreported but practical work is taking place.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a senior advisor to McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP.

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