international challenge for Canada is how we manage our relationship with
our North American partners, the United States and Mexico. It's an issue
that's being discussed in political, governmental, business and think-tank
circles around the countries — in other words, by our so-called elites —
in an atmosphere that suggests some big choices have to be made and made
All kinds of big schemes are being put on the table, from a common
currency or adopting the U.S. dollar and a customs union or common market
to an immigration and defence perimeter and harmonization of key policies
on the environment, energy and many other areas, as well as the creation
of shared political or intergovernmental institutions.
But as Marc Lortie, a key Canadian official dealing with North
American issues told a seminar on North American integration in Toronto
yesterday, greater integration is the issue of tomorrow. There's no
appetite for it in the United States today or, really, in Canada.
Instead, as Lortie, assistant deputy minister for the Americas at
our foreign affairs department told a Public Policy Forum gathering,
Canada is very much focused on two other issues: How to better manage the
Canada-U.S. relationship, and here the key issue is the border; and how to
strengthen and broaden Canada's relationship with Mexico.
While Mexican President Vicente Fox has challenged Canada and the
United States with his "audacious approach to North America" modelled in
part on the European Union, including freer mobility of people, a common
currency, a customs union, a shared passport and other such initiatives, a
more pragmatic approach targeting specific areas of shared interest is
more likely, such as the recently established working group on energy or
border security agreements.
Canada has done a lot with the Americans, according to Lortie. "But
we haven't pursued a customs union or things like that. It's not on the
radar screen. What's on the radar screen is smooth movement across the
border to facilitate the flow of goods."
For example, Canada has a far-reaching 30-point agreement on border
issues, though there are still remaining issues on the movement of goods
Immigration is another important issue. The idea of a North
American perimeter is very much "a conceptual approach," according to
Lortie. A common immigration policy was a non-starter, he indicated. But
co-operation outside of North America is happening. For example, if Canada
turns someone down for a visa or from boarding a plane destined for Canada
at a foreign airport, that information is shared with the United States
But the bigger issue of deeper North American integration lacks a
political driver in either Canada or the United States to make anything
happen soon. When Canada began to think about a free-trade agreement with
the United States in 1985, there was a political driver — the need not for
greater access to the U.S. market but to gain protection against growing
Likewise, as Andres Rozental, now an international business
executive but previously deputy minister of foreign affairs in Mexico,
said, a key driver for Mexico to pursue the North American Free Trade
Agreement was the rejection by the Europeans of a Mexican attempt to
establish a special relationship with Europe. Mexico decided then that its
future was in a North American community, Rozental said.
But while there is bold vision in Mexico for deep North American
integration, there is no strong political will to pursue deep integration
in the United States or Canada.
This doesn't mean nothing is happening. Yesterday, the three
environment ministers met in Ottawa. Today, business leaders from the
three countries meet in Washington with U.S. President George W. Bush. And
Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Bush and Fox, who met together last year at
the time of the Quebec City summit, and again in Monterrey this spring
where Fox outlined his ideas on North American integration, will meet
again this year in Mexico City.
"This practical approach will manage the relationship for the time
being," Lortie stressed yesterday. This means there is no need for Canada
to feel it has to rush into hasty decisions on deep integration with the
United States and Mexico.
Instead we have time to think through our national interest and
determine what kind of future North American relationship we want.
Whatever it is, Canadians clearly want to maintain their political
independence, identity, culture and values as well.
David Crane is The Star's economics editor. His column appears
Tuesday to Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. He can be reached at [email protected].