07/02/2015 08:57 EDT | Updated 07/02/2016 05:59 EDT

Canada Needs to Increase Its Focus on North America

That the U.S. is changing is not news; it may be the definition of pabulum. But what is surprising is how out of touch or uninformed most of Canada seems to be with the drastically changing U.S. and also Mexico, in other words with North America.


A great thing about blogs, as opposed to op-eds, is the ability to engage responses. That and lack of a Facebook account, required to respond to comments on Huffington Post, is motivation to take up two threads on Trudeau's speech that emerged from the first blog post and from commentary elsewhere.

I'll take the first thread here and the second in a follow up.

First, was an interesting analysis that Trudeau got it wrong by lambasting the PM for his handling of North America.

My reaction to that was -- don't know and don't care.

When a candidate utters the words " opponent..." it's a signal to head to the kitchen for a sandwich and beer returning only when the candidate has moved on to something else.

What was interesting and actually important in Trudeau's speech was not the pabulum in slagging one of his rivals but the "what I would do is..." And there he had some good ideas. Not original ideas (little on North America is original) but what he said made sense and fit the current narrative.

But, I'm still waiting to hear what the other candidates have to say about North America.

Either North America does not warrant a speech a la Trudeau or it has been calculated that it's not important enough to the voters to waste precious seconds of the public's attention during an election campaign. Either way, so far, it's not good.

Within the confines of what a prime minister and her or his government can do, Trudeau had some good ideas. Could he have said more? Of course. Did he miss some things, again of course. But, did he say something of importance? Yes.

And that brings up one of Trudeau's main ideas; a cabinet committee on the United States (which I suggested would have to include Mexico and given the tenor of Trudeau's remarks, he already seems halfway to that realization).

The importance of the idea is in recognizing the critical need to increase focus on North America and proposing a concrete action to address it. Beyond immediate gains for a government it is also a signal for other actors in Canada, in other words leadership.

That the U.S. is changing is not news; it may be the definition of pabulum. But what is surprising is how out of touch or uninformed most of Canada seems to be with the drastically changing U.S. and also Mexico, in other words with North America.

From missing the deep rootedness of Obama's anti-NAFTA bent and general opposition to Keystone to missing the significance of one of the largest demographic shifts in U.S. history, to missing the rise in importance of Mexico in the U.S., Canada's record on the U.S. is about equal to my record in fantasy hockey and picking NCAA basketball. (I've been beaten by junior high schoolers on both fronts.) But for a country that claims to be so close, in so many ways, to the U.S., it really is kind of startling.

Though maybe it shouldn't be given the closing of, what is as far as I can find, one of the last North American centre in Canada a few years ago and ending of the enhanced U.S. representation initiative seven years ago.

Canada's partners in North America each have capacity, outside of government and academia, focused on each of the countries in North America. The last time I testified in the Mexican congress I was joined by Mexican experts on Canada who were housed in centres with resources to work full time on North American issues and make the critical linkages with decision makers and public opinion and policy shapers.

Canada has expertise, but it's neither resourced nor deployed as with our neighbours. Instead of building resources and capacity we have made cuts. To find Canadian experts on the U.S. and Mexico in a well resourced and connected non-academic think tank, one has to head down to Washington D.C. And on Mexico, Canada's fifth largest trading partner, I do not know of any non-academic, policy resources in Canada focused exclusively on that country. Given the rising importance of Mexico in Washington D.C., that absence is starting to hurt us.

There is awareness in Canada of the need to invest, Colin Robertson has been championing the idea to enlist the Canadian diaspora in the U.S. This is a great idea by one of Canada's leading thinkers on North America who is keenly aware of the magnitude of the changes in North America. But his idea has not gained traction.

There have been a few bright spots. Hearings in Ottawa by the Senate and most recently by Dean Allison and the Foreign Affairs committee have been important and showed leadership. I testified in parliament a few months ago with some of the individuals and groups focused on North America. The Department of Foreign Affairs and other ministries have not dropped the ball, work on day-to-day issues continues, quietly, often unnoticed. .

But these are exceptions. The larger trend is troubling. Instead of increasing resources we have made cuts.

Canadian arrogance and complacency on North America -- meaning all of Canada not just the government -- may be coming back to bite us.

And speaking of getting bitten, the other issue sparked by the original piece was a discussion on the decision to impose visas on Mexicans coming to Canada.

That's for the next post.

On North America, it's hopeful that we'll see statements by the other candidates and headlines like (in alphabetical order) "Harper Get's it Right on North America" and "Mulcair's Bold Vision for North America."


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