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Why Canada-U.S. Relations Are Like a Hockey Game

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Have you ever found yourself cheering for the referees? Not applauding a good call, but standing up and shouting in support of what they're doing during the game?

Probably not. It isn't normal. And yet that is what I feel like doing after a weekend spent reviewing the U.S.-Canada Beyond the Border Working Group and implementation progress reports on the Regulatory Cooperation Council, each of which was released late Friday.

Here's why: in the first year, despite the distractions posed by the 2012 elections and a series of U.S. budget battles, the governments of Canada and the United States have made a strong start on improving border and regulatory cooperation.

They have accomplished some tangible upgrades in service for citizens and businesses in both countries, and have kept (mostly) to the ambitious schedules for delivering progress that they set for themselves in the Beyond the Border and Regulatory Cooperation Council Action Plans issued a year ago.

Think of the U.S.-Canada economic relationship as a hockey game (remember hockey? Sigh.) Normally, players skate back and forth, competing for the puck. Except that in this game, there are two problems.

First, the officials call penalties according to different rules depending on which end of the ice it is: what one ref calls offsides, another considers fair; high-sticking is also judged differently. The differences are minor, but confusing and cause hesitation in players who as a result can't play at their best.

Second, in this arena there is a set of fixed barriers at centre ice that force players crossing back and forth dodge obstacles (and not just opposing players). The game is slower and a lot less fun.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama established the Regulatory Cooperation Council so that the officials calling the game work from the same rule book, with the same definitions and standards -- not to eliminate the rules, but to enhance the game. They set up the Beyond the Border Working Group to eliminate the obstacles security measures place to legitimate goods and travelers who need to get across "centre ice" to compete.

Neither the Beyond the Border Working Group nor the Regulatory Cooperation Council is the kind of initiative that is likely to earn a lot of applause for Harper or Obama, much less for the officials working on it behind the scenes. That's because sorting out regulations and inspection differences is hard work and will take a long time. And most of the "fans" -- citizens like us -- come to watch the game and not to cheer the refs. When the game is well-officiated we hardly notice the refs, let alone give them credit. After all, most calls come down to common sense!

That's why I want to give two cheers for the officials: one cheer for undertaking these initiatives to promote better coordination on border security and economic regulation, and another for a solid year of progress on both fronts despite many distractions.

There is a lot of work to do still. Yet I'm hopeful that U.S. and Canadian officials will earn three cheers soon, from me and other observers, when they accomplish more. There are a number of pilot projects and agreements on data sharing that hold the promise of real gains in the months ahead.

Even then, it isn't only cheering for the refs - I'll be cheering for the love of the game. At least until the NHL players and owners can work out a deal, it is the only game worth watching.

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