Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

U.S.-Canada Relations: After 200 Years, Business as Usual

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Both sides of the U.S.-Canada border are currently commemorating the last major armed conflict between our countries.  The War of 1812 was obviously not the war to end all wars, but it is being remembered as the one that marked the beginning of 200 years of peace and prosperity between the closest and friendliest neighbors today on the planet. 

Today these two great democracies, each a federation, share the most important commercial relationship in the world.  They have not only traded and done commerce together, they have fought side by side against oppression, they contribute to each other’s energy security, they share a border and work together to protect it, they have worked jointly on environmental concerns, they adhere to similar values and have cultural links,  their citizens travel to each other’s country and enjoy its amenities—all this and more make the Canada-U.S. relationship the most durable and unique partnership in human history.

In recent weeks, some of Canada’s former ambassadors including Derek Burney, Alan Gottlieb, and Michael Kergin have weighed on the nature of the relationship over the years. Some have complained about the current state of affairs .The general impression left from their writings is one of complexity, and sometimes not always working in the interests of Canada. Fortunately, former U.S. Ambassador to Canada Gordon Giffin presented a far more optimistic account of the relationship. The real picture is probably somewhere in the middle.

It is to be expected that the world’s premier power and a respected middle power will not share the same national interests and priorities.  In my former role as Québec’s Delegate General in New York including our office in Washington, I can attest to the fact that getting on the agenda of leading policymakers in the U.S. was not without obstacles. Yet, persistence, perseverance and close cooperation with the Canadian embassy, allowed us to pursue our goals and our common interests.

In less than 100 days, U.S. voters will have voted for a President, a full House of Representatives, one-third of the Senate, and a number of state Governors.  This means that once again Canadian representatives will have to curry attention and favor from key U.S. policy makers, some new and some renewed. Trade and commerce in a sluggish North American economy are bound to encounter revived protectionist reflexes south of our border.  Security will remain a primary concern because the world is not any safer.   And we should expect energy and environmental issues to likely become the dominant issue in the U.S.-Canada relationship over the next presidential term.

Oil pipeline politics have recently become the order of the day in Canada.  The Obama Administration’s decision last autumn to delay final approval of the Keystone Pipeline displeased many on the Canadian side, seeing it as a crass domestic political decision above all.  This led the Harper government to articulate an alternative strategy for exporting the abundant oil sands of Alberta.  The Northern Gateway project sponsored by Enbridge Pipeline is meant to export oil sands through British Columbia on its way to be shipped to China.

The Northern Gateway project has since encountered some significant political headwinds from the British Columbia provincial government, which is asking for greater environmental and financial benefits, from First Nations groups defending their lands claims and environmental concerns, and environmental groups worried about safety and potential spills.  The debate is far from over and it is likely the U.S. will have approved the Keystone Project before the Northern Gateway Project begins.

All of this to say that the U.S.-Canada relationship is such that our divergent views will never be consistent, front-page headline-grabbing fodder.  Our pipeline politics both within our country and between our governments will likely work themselves out over time.  Our Prime Minister and President Obama are on very good speaking terms, and should a change occur in the November presidential contest, I would venture to predict it will still be a ‘business as usual’ approach. After 200 years of peace and prosperity between us, it has become the norm.  And despite our occasional differences, we are better for it.

John Parisella is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently an invited professor at University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. His Twitter account is ‏@JohnParisella.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: Canada, United States, US-Canada relations
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