Commentary from Colin Robertson

Why we shouldn’t put provinces in the corner

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
October 27, 2015

We think about North America as three sovereign democracies. It’s true. But all three nations are also federations, sharing constitutional power with 95 states, provinces and territories.

Later this week, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper will host the first-ever summit of North American governors and premiers in Colorado Springs.

Mexican governors will have the best attendance, reflecting that, for now, Mexico is the most enthusiastic about North American collaboration. Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski and Ambassador Gary Doer will lead the Canadians.

The summit agenda focuses on trade and economics with sessions on innovative infrastructure investment, economic innovation, jobs and investment.

Knowing governors matters. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto previously served as a governor. This year’s American presidential aspirants include Governor John Kasich and former governor Jeb Bush. Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all served as governors.

Regional collaboration with governors is well developed. Atlantic premiers have met regularly with their New England counterparts since 1973. The Council of the Great Lakes Region, formed in 2011, focuses on the economy and ecosystem. Western governors and premiers attend each others’ annual meetings. As Manitoba premier, Gary Doer included U.S. and Mexican governors at a 2006 Gimli Western Premiers Conference. They joined in the ultimately successful push to use “smart” drivers’ licences for cross-border travel.

Constitutions vest provinces, states and territories with responsibility for schooling, health care, roads and infrastructure. In Canada, the provinces own their natural resources. They share responsibility for trade and immigration with the national government.

Budgetary pressures oblige innovation by provinces, states and territories. They have become the incubators and outliers on policies and programs, good and bad. Medicare was pioneered in Saskatchewan. Current emissions standards on Canadian and U.S. cars and trucks began in California.

Collaboration in practical environmental management is long-standing. Bombardier “Super Scoopers” are shared during forest fire season. Line workers from state and provincial utilities help each other out when ice storms and hurricanes put out the lights.

During the past decade, most Canadian innovation on climate change occurred at the provincial level. When prime-minister-designate Justin Trudeau meets with the premiers, in anticipation of next month’s Paris climate summit, provincial achievements inevitably will form the basis for a constructive Canadian position on carbon pricing and innovation.

British Columbia’s carbon tax, now seven years old, works. Ontario has joined Quebec in a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions which is also aligned with California. Alberta plans to double its current carbon levy. Last year, Saskatchewan launched the first commercial carbon capture-and-storage project at a coal-fired plant in Estevan.

Hydropower utilities in Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia provide 63 per cent of Canadian electricity and they are world leaders in this renewable resource. Oil-sands companies now share 814 technologies worth almost $13-billion. Mining companies used 30 per cent less water from the Athabasca River in 2014 compared with 2012. Alberta’s energy regulator is sharing its best practices with Mexico.

During the years when the Harper government put China in the ice-box, the premiers kept alive the vital official ties necessary for Asian business. Jean Chrétien recognized the value of including the premiers in Team Canada trade missions. It’s a practice that Mr. Trudeau should revive, starting with Mexico, our third-largest trading partner.

President Pena Nieto was the first international leader to congratulate Mr. Trudeau, tweeting “let’s start a new chapter.” In June, Mr. Trudeau spoke of Mexico’s “fundamental impact” on Canada-U.S. relations and called for lifting the visa requirement imposed by the Harper government.

Lifting the visa should be Mr. Trudeau’s first initiative. Seeing Mr. Pena Nieto in Mexico City, before meeting President Barack Obama in Washington, will underline Mr. Trudeau’s personal commitment to a “new chapter” with Mexico. Mexican Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu is ready to visit Ottawa. Talking about climate and competitiveness will also demonstrate to the White House that Mr. Trudeau appreciates the North American neighbourhood.

With the Trans-Pacific Partnership and separate trade deals with the European Union coming together, trilateral co-operation can make North America a competitive platform. The practicalities of getting our goods to market – roads, rail and bridges, ports and terminals, grids and pipelines – must involve premiers and governors. This week’s Colorado Springs meeting can advance this agenda.

The premiers’ and governors’ summit should become a regular event with NASCO, the trilateral network for North American trade competitiveness, as its secretariat.

Provinces, states and territories are often dismissed, inaccurately, as a secondary, inferior level of government. Yet it is their work that most affects the everyday life of citizens.


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