Continentalism of a Different Stripe

Are Canadian provinces and the blue states in the U.S. quietly forging a radical new North American Union ? This American says, “Yes.”

series of faces superimposed on a map
Illustration by R.O. Jones

There is an old saying in real estate—location, location, location. No sooner had the 2004 presidential election been decided than maps began appearing all over the Internet, recasting the North American landscape into two distinct political and cultural regions, with Canada and the Northeast, upper Midwest, and West coast states all coloured in blue, and the rest of the continental United States coloured in red. Although the intent was sardonic, what if the jest did indeed have political legs and there was a very real possibility of redrawing the political map of the continent?

In fact, it is already happening, behind the scenes, in myriad subtle ways, and the long-term implications for the future of North America are profound and far-reaching. Welcome to the incipient rise of the first regional transnational space—a grouping of Canadian provinces and American states whose commercial and political interests and shared vision make them increasingly more compatible with each other than the blue states are with their own neighbours in the American heartland. What is beginning to emerge is a North American Union, combining Canada and the so-called blue states of the US that, in time, may become more semi-autonomous and detached from the rest of America, at least de facto, if not formally.

Of course, trade liberalization advocates (on both sides of the border) have long maintained that Canada, the US, and Mexico ought to expand and deepen the North American Free Trade Agreement (nafta), further integrating their respective economies while maintaining their national sovereignties. However, many Canadians deeply oppose strengthening nafta, arguing that Canada is already being absorbed into the larger US economy and is losing its political sovereignty in the process. These Canadians also worry that “nafta+” will mean having to go along with the dominant American ideology, with its emphasis on an older American Dream, the central tenets of which are at odds with Canada’s deeply held cultural and social values. They fear that the new “continentalism” is merely coded language for erasing the forty-ninth parallel, having a customs union, a common currency, and a fully integrated economy protected by continental security agreements, including President Bush’s missile defence initiative. In short, they fear that it is a front for a twenty-first-century high-tech American colonialism designed to grab hold of Canada’s rich resources and remake its citizenry in the American image.

Critics of nafta, and of international trade-liberalization treaties in general, argue that such mega-initiatives often overlook particulars, and cite the ongoing softwood lumber and “mad cow” disputes as examples of the clumsy and often unjust consequences of such agreements. Opponents of the “one container fits all” approach to continentalism also worry that Canada is becoming so dependent on exports to the US (currently 86 percent of Canadian exports flow south) that the country may eventually be forced to accept whatever commercial and political terms the US chooses to impose. This is why Canada’s nafta critics insist on trade, investment, and fiscal policies that encourage the growth of a robust internal market and overseas trade, on reforms to safeguard Canadian industries from US protectionism, and on measures to redress the current trade imbalance between Canada and the US.

There is, however, another option. According to former Canadian Minister of External Affairs Lloyd Axworthy, the 1990s saw the emergence of a spider’s web of regional cross-border networks. In the US, owing to both its tradition of states’ rights and a Supreme Court looking askance at “commandeering” (i.e., the use of state legislatures for the implementation of federal initiatives), states are mostly free to determine economic agreements. And during the 1990s, significant steps were taken by border states to increase ties with Canadian provinces—a development that found a receptive audience in the north. In 1999, then-Ontario Premier Mike Harris, in a speech to American governors, said, “We really see you as very strong allies, more so than many parts of Canada, something far more significant than perhaps my national government understands.” Indeed, regional associations from coast to coast (e.g., the Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers; Ontario and Quebec and the Council of Great Lakes Governors; the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region) have all signed mutually beneficial memoranda of understanding covering issues such as trade, border security, and the environment, all with an eye to harmonization.

The aftermath of 9/11 placed a temporary chill on this activity. With Canada being wrongfully accused of having porous borders and being a safe haven for terrorists, and with Washington asserting its authority over all aspects of domestic life, state administrations felt hamstrung and more deferential to the central government. At the same time, power in Canada was devolving from the centre to the provinces, a trend, based on statements by provincial premiers following Canada’s new health care accord, that appears now to be accelerating. In a November speech to his provincial Liberal party, Quebec Premier Jean Charest stated flatly, “If Alberta can get rich selling oil, why not Quebec with its hydroelectricity?”

While Canadian nationalists may bristle at such an assertion of provincial rights—to say nothing of Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams’ insistence on maintaining full equalization payments on top of 100 percent of the revenues from offshore oil—Charest’s statement clearly resonates through the halls of US state administrations, especially in those states hungry for energy security. The irony of the current situation, however, is that as Prime Minister Martin awaits the next salvo from this or that provincial premier, in his second term President Bush is consolidating power in Washington. US citizens can look forward to a national sales tax, an ultra-conservative judiciary and, in Alberto Gonzales and Condoleezza Rice, an approach to justice and national security that places Washington’s interests at the top of the heap. Despite the diplomatic niceties uttered by Bush during his Canadian visit last December, he is unmistakably a man on a mission, and foreign countries, as well as blue-state governors, are expected to fall in line.

Within hours of President Bush’s re-election, Canadian immigration offices were flooded with inquiries from Americans seeking information on Canadian citizenship requirements. On November 3, 2004, Immigration Canada’s website registered 116,000 hits from the US, up from a daily average of roughly 20,000. While traffic on the Web site returned to normal by mid- to late November, a series of December 2004 seminars in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles conducted by Vancouver immigration lawyers Rudolf Kischer and Joshua Sohn on how to move to Canada, attracted hundreds. Reports from these meetings suggest that the election produced a new kind of refugee in search of “cultural asylum,” people hoping to escape the clutches of a heartland way of life that makes them feel like aliens in their own land.

Indeed, the US election results provided a stark picture of two Americas: one whose views about human nature, morality, and political beliefs are locked into an older frontier past; another whose perspective is more cosmopolitan and tied to a global consciousness. The latter group is concentrated almost exclusively in the clusters of Northeastern, Great Lakes, and Pacific states that border on, or are near, Canada.

For the most part, the anti-Bush voters share a greater cultural camaraderie with their Canadian neighbours than with heartland America. Canada’s Supreme Court ruling allowing for gay-marriage legislation came shortly after the US election, and one of the subgroups attending the seminars were gay Americans whose partners happened to be foreigners. As it currently stands—and with voters in eleven states favouring a constitutional ban on same-sex unions, there is no reason to anticipate any change—such foreigners cannot claim “family ties” in order to gain permanent U.S. residency status. Intriguingly, only two blue states (Michigan and Oregon) passed the anti-gay-marriage initiative. Polls also suggest general blue-state support for the other hot-button social issue, the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes, an area in which Canada is again taking a progressive position.

George Bush was re-elected in part because he promised a safer America. But blue-state skeptics see US unilateralism and aggressive military adventures, including pre-emptive strikes, as creating a situation that will only provoke further attacks on Americans. American liberals prefer multilateral initiatives and international covenants—the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, and the United Nations rules on what is considered acceptable military intervention—i.e., positions such as those adopted by the Canadian government.

Recall that just after the presidential election, political pundits were quick to jump on values issues ranging from human-embryo research to gay marriage as the reason why President Bush won. What’s clear, however, is that, on a deeper level Bush supporters saw the president as the keeper of the American Dream, which has long been regarded as the social glue that has united the country. The American Dream, with its emphasis on individual opportunity, the pursuit of self-interest and personal success in an unfettered marketplace, faith in God and love of country, and belief in a strong military presence in the world, is what brought droves of Americans to the polls to re-elect the president. But many of the voters who cast their ballots for Senator John Kerry have lost the faith. First, there are the millions of Americans who, despite hard work and sacrifice, have failed to advance in a society that increasingly favours the interests of its wealthiest families. The US currently ranks a dismal twenty-fourth among industrial nations in income inequality. (Only Mexico and Russia rank lower.) Then there are the many other Americans who are upwardly mobile but find that US society’s overemphasis on individual self-interest and material success is far too limited to fulfill their deeper needs and aspirations.

Although they have not abandoned the American penchant for individualism, many supporters of Senator Kerry realize that even the most self-reliant American is vulnerable to foes such as a sars epidemic, a computer virus, a terrorist attack, a stock-market scandal, or global warming. These Americans seek a broader global vision more compatible with an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world. While much of the American heartland is blind to events north of the border, a growing number of disenfranchised Americans in the blue states are looking north and cocking their ears to the fact that “liberal” is not a dirty word in Canada.

Not since the Vietnam War, when, between 1970 and 1975, roughly 120,000 Americans fled north, has there been such sustained interest in the Canadian option. Currently, fewer than 6,000 US citizens take up residency in Canada each year, but with America on a permanent war footing, the spectre of a draft being raised, and President Bush set to nominate more conservative Supreme Court judges, many are predicting a spike in US emigration north. One result from such an influx into Canada will be the growth of associational ties between our two countries.

an opposite dream
While for the majority of Americans Canada still remains an unacknowledged alternative, the US is witnessing the emergence of a model across the Atlantic that is proving the “American way” is not the only way. In Europe, twenty-five nations, representing 455 million people, have joined together to create a “United States of Europe.” The European Union’s gdp now rivals that of the US, making it the world’s other great superpower. The EU is already the world’s leading exporter and largest internal trading market, and the euro is now stronger than the dollar. Moreover, much of Europe enjoys a longer lifespan and greater literacy rate, and has less poverty and crime, less blight and sprawl, longer vacations, and shorter commutes to work than Americans experience. In terms of what makes a people great and what constitutes a better way of life, Europe is now surpassing America.

Equally important is the European Dream. While the American version emphasizes unrestrained economic growth, personal wealth, and the pursuit of individual self-interest, the European Dream focuses more on sustainable development, quality of life, and the nurturing of community. We Americans live (and die) by the work ethic and the dictates of efficiency. Europeans place more attention on balancing work and leisure. America has always seen itself as a great melting pot. Europeans prefer to preserve their rich multicultural diversity. Americans place a premium on property rights and civil rights. Europeans favour social rights and universal human rights. Americans put their faith in God and country. Europeans put their faith in social welfare and civil society. Americans believe in maintaining an unrivalled military presence in the world. Europeans, by contrast, emphasize co-operation and consensus over go-it-alone approaches to foreign policy. The European Dream is the first attempt at creating a global consciousness for a shrinking world.

All of this does not suggest that Europe has suddenly become a utopia. Its problems are complex and its weaknesses are glaringly transparent. And, of course, Europeans’ high-mindedness is often riddled with hypocrisy. The point, however, is not whether Europeans are living up to the dream they have for themselves. We have never fully lived up to the American Dream. Rather, what’s crucial is that Europe is articulating a bold new vision for the future of humanity that differs in many of its most fundamental aspects from America’s.

During my recent travels in Canada, I was struck by how Canadian values resemble those of the new Europe. Indeed, the European Dream could just as easily be called the Canadian Dream. The more global dream that many Canadians and Americans in the blue states share with Europeans is likely going to propel Canada and the blue states closer together in the decades to come, transforming the region into a new transnational configuration—a North American Union—with ever closer ties to the European Union. The process is already well advanced, although woefully unacknowledged in both public-policy circles and the media.

regional autonomy: follow the money
The commercial ties between the blue states and Canada, already strong, are increasing with each passing day. Six of the ten states leading in exports to Canada are blue states, while eight out of the ten states leading in imports of Canadian goods and services are blue states. These statistics become even more significant when we consider that Canada is the US’s major trading partner and accounts for one-fifth of all US exports and imports. In 2003, the US sold $203 billion (Cdn.) worth of goods and services to Canada and received $326 billion worth of goods and services from Canada. The blue states make up much of the US commercial relationship with Canada.

Some of the commercial relationships between Canada and the blue states have become nearly seamless. For example, although threatened by the rise of the Canadian dollar and a resentful US-based lobby, Vancouver and Toronto are still known as “Hollywood North,” with a large percentage of the US industry reliant on Canadian shooting, editing, and processing talent. The centre of the North American automobile industry now runs from Detroit to Oshawa, Ontario. Most of the electricity exported by Canada is used in the northeastern US, the upper midwest, and the Pacific coast states. And although Americans are certainly worried about the prospects of oil supplies being cut off from the Persian Gulf, few realize that Canada is America’s third-largest supplier of crude oil. In 2003, Canada shipped $53.5 billion in energy exports and more petroleum products than Saudi Arabia to the US. Canada is also America’s main supplier of natural gas, most of it going to blue-state economies.

The close commercial relationship between blue states and Canada has been accompanied by ever closer political ties. In fact, the political integration of northeastern, upper midwest, and Pacific coast states with Canada has, in many ways, begun to eclipse the blue states’ traditional political links with some of America’s heartland red states.

The Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers (neg/ecp), founded in 1973 and made up of six blue states and five Canadian provinces, has been steadily moving toward a regional transnational approach. The governors and premiers meet annually to “discuss issues of common interest and concern and enact policy resolutions that call on actions by the state and provincial governments, as well as by the two national governments.” Between these summits, the neg/ecp convenes meetings of state and provincial officials to implement policies, organize workshops, and prepare studies and reports on issues of regional impact. The conference’s many accomplishments include “the expansion of economic ties among the states and provinces; the fostering of energy exchanges; the forceful advocacy of environmental issues and sustainable development; and the coordination of numerous policies and programs in such areas as transportation, forest management, tourism, small-scale agriculture, and fisheries.” Current neg/ecp initiatives include tightening cross-border security and creating an information technology corridor that would improve broadband connectivity, link regional and educational networks, and bolster the IT skills of the region’s workforce in order to establish a world-class IT commercial zone.

In 1998, New England governors and Canadian premiers passed a resolution creating the International Northeast Biotechnology Corridor (inbc), a non-profit corporation with the goal of turning the region into the largest biotechnology centre in the world. Judging by the level of activity (e.g., international trade missions advancing its biotechnology interests, collaboration between university researchers and student exchanges between Canadian and US institutions, the growth of the industry, and an impressive array of conferences scheduled for 2005), the inbc is clearly realizing its mandate. Embedded in its “vision statement” is “the creation of a regional identity,” something that the neg/ecp will also promote as they work towards establishing the IT commercial zone and the entire region as a knowledge-based economy.

Recently, another cross-border political group, the Council of Great Lakes Governors, representing eight states, plus Ontario and Quebec, has proposed rules to regulate water use in the Great Lakes which, critics argue, could open the door to massive diversion schemes. While the group insists that its proposal will protect and improve this “precious natural resource” for the region’s 45 million people, others believe that, in toto, it represents a “water for sale” agreement. Meetings are scheduled over the next few months in what might be a test case of cross-border governance.

A similar transnational political region to the neg/ecp exists in the Pacific Northwest and includes five US states and two Canadian provinces. Established in 1991, the Pacific North-West Economic Region’s (pnwer) mission is “to increase the economic well-being and quality of life for all citizens of the region.” The pnwer website boasts an annual “gross regional product” of nearly $700 billion (US), and supposes, somewhat provocatively, that “if it were a nation,” it would rank tenth amongst the world’s leading economies.

At least as active as its eastern counterparts, the pnwer group is attempting to harmonize approaches in the fields of agriculture, environmental technology, forest production, government procurement, recycling, telecommunications, tourism, trade and finance, and transportation. pnwer subcommittees are looking at a regional energy strategy, methods for states and provinces to reduce soaring health-care costs, best practices for sustainable development, border-security issues, foreign investment, and sharing information to upgrade workforce skills. The group lobbied hard for an end to the Alberta beef ban and all member states supported Vancouver’s Olympic bid.

Fast on the heels of a similar arrangement between Ontario and New York State, in 2002 Michigan and Ontario signed a memorandum of understanding that calls for close co-operation in the crucial areas of trade, tourism, transportation, border issues, and the environment. The Ontario/Michigan Tourism Action Group has been set up to “explore new tourism products and marketing opportunities for the Ontario/ Michigan area.”

All three of these transnational political groupings represent a new chapter in North American governance, with both Canada and the blue states bringing powerful assets to the partnership. Canada’s vast energy reserves (including hydro, natural gas, oil from the Alberta tar sands, and, potentially, Newfoundland’s offshore reserves, as well as wind power across the Prairies) provide the kind of energy security that is essential to make transnational political regions semi-autonomous.

A wealth of natural resources give provincial governments considerable leverage, but the bargaining chips don’t end there. Canada also sports a highly educated workforce and relatively low production costs. For example, American employers save on health-care costs by locating production facilities in Canada or outsourcing to Canadian firms because workers in Canada are covered by national health-care insurance.

The blue states, in turn, have some of the best universities and research facilities on the planet. With world-class business schools like Wharton, Harvard, Kellogg, and Stanford, and research universities like mit, Carnegie Mellon, and the California Institute of Technology, the blue states’ vast intellectual resources, combined with Canada’s university centres of excellence and groups like the Toronto-based Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, give the budding partnerships a leg up on other regions of the world in cutting-edge commercial development. Silicon Valley, Route 128 in Boston, and the Washington-Baltimore corridor—i.e., the most advanced high-tech industrial clusters anywhere—are all located in blue states eager to establish cross-border zones of commercial and intellectual activity.

If such a transnational regional political entity were to mature, it would likely seek closer commercial and political ties with the European Union, whose values and vision it shares. The European Union would provide an emerging North American Union with an alternative economic arena that has commercial clout approaching that of the U.S., thus giving the region the leverage it would need to establish at least a partial breakaway from the iron grip of the American market. The EU and Canada have already laid the foundation for such a union in the 1996 Joint Political Declaration on EU-Canada Relations. The declaration was designed to create a relationship between the EU and Canada in economic and trade relations, foreign security issues, and other transnational issues.

The EU’s success is, in no small measure, attributable to the distributive nature of power exercised in Europe. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is said to have remarked, “If I pick up the phone and call Europe, who answers the line?” The EU represents a new network form of governance, a non-hierarchical governing model made up of myriad interests including nation states, regions, civil society organizations, and transnational corporations, in which no single player is powerful enough to completely dominate the game. It’s pure “process politics,” a continuous dialogue among all of the interests in which compromise and consensus between all of the parties is integral to success.

The North American transborder governing experiments share much in common with the EU model. But what makes these new political arrangements so attractive is that their respective citizens tend to have a shared world view and a common dream about the kind of future they would like to have for themselves. Like many Canadians, blue-state citizens worry about being absorbed into an agenda increasingly at odds with their own values, beliefs, and hopes for the future. And, I should add, they are becoming increasingly angry about their taxes being redistributed to support what they perceive to be a flawed and faded American Dream.

The American people are deeply and irreconcilably polarized—like partners in a marriage who have drifted apart over the years and now find they have little in common. Meanwhile, people of the blue states and Canada are beginning to pursue the making of a new romance, born of shared values and mutual interests. Is it possible that a new North American Union might be in the offing in the not-so-distant future.

Jeremy Rifkin