An ‘Invisible Border’ With the U.S. is a Nice Idea, but Not a Practical One

APRIL 27 / Donna Kennedy-Glans

Cold War 2.0, which is taking shape amid Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, has compelled several European nations to step up their military capacity and wean themselves from dependence on Russian oil and gas.

Being a free rider is no longer a comfortable option in Europe – and there is a lesson in all this for Canada.

Consider U.S. Senator Joe Manchin’s visit to Alberta in April to see firsthand the oil and natural gas fields that help to secure supplies of energy to American consumers. In a news conference with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney after the tour, Mr. Manchin posited that the Canada-U.S. border “should be invisible” – invoking an image of an integrated, North American energy and climate consortium generating the cleanest power in the world.

An invisible border between neighbours is a friendly notion, and most of us have American friends and family who are dear to us. Yet it blurs the idea of sovereignty in ways that can be disarming if one isn’t paying attention.

Mr. Manchin may well be right. The 8,891-kilometre border separating Canada and the U.S. is nearly invisible – until it is shut down by a virus, a mad cow, a pipeline protest or a trucker convoy. Free trade with the U.S. has given Canada prosperity for decades, but supply chains and our underlying assumptions about reciprocity have been rattled on occasion. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed a longstanding issue for Canadian business: overreliance on American enterprise, infrastructure and markets.

More than 50 years ago, Eric Newell launched Syncrude and the development of Alberta’s oil sands. PanCanadian Energy Corporation gained access to the lucrative mineral rights granted to the Canadian Pacific Railway to become Canada’s biggest independent producer of oil and gas. Meanwhile, premier Peter Lougheed’s government drilled prolific gas reserves on federal lands in the province and created the Alberta Energy Company. At the time, the aim was to do whatever it took to “secure Canada’s energy future.”

But over the past two decades, Canadian enterprise has been obsessed with getting commodities to American markets and has taken for granted the value of energy security to our own nation. As Mr. Manchin pointed out in his visit, 62 percent of the oil and 98 percent of the natural gas imported to the U.S. comes from Canada.

Canada’s dependence problem extends beyond energy: In 2004, Canada’s Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food was looking into bottlenecks in the Canadian meat-packing industry. At the time, American consumers were buying over 70 percent of Canada’s exports of beef products and nearly all our exports of live cattle. Why was the Senate interested? Just days before Christmas in 2003, an Alberta-born cow residing in Washington State was discovered to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease). This single case led to the closure of the U.S. border to Canadian cattle.

Canadian senators listened to stories of ranchers losing their lifetime earnings, banks seizing cattle that farmers could no longer afford to feed, and breeding stock being lost. The senators also posed (and answered) a critical question: Why did one single case of BSE cause such havoc in the beef industry in Canada? Primarily because this industry, which generated more than $7.5-billion in farm cash receipts in 2002, was built on exports almost exclusively to one country.

A nation’s capacity to produce and distribute the necessities of life to citizens – wheat, meat, vaccines, energy resources, rare earth metals, freshwater – is now more meaningful than ever. “Buy America” isn’t likely to wane, and in a new era of energy and food insecurity, we should expect leaders of most nations to focus on the most critical gaps in their own supply chains. Mr. Manchin has recently bemoaned U.S. dependence on China for rare-earth minerals, for example.

As European nations are now learning, however, rebuilding local and regional economies is a wicked problem for government and business leaders to solve – and one that is easy to overlook when times are good.

For Canada, one upside of the present public-health crisis may be its ability to illuminate – even for a moment – the value of self-sufficiency. This doesn’t require us to be inward-looking, insular or isolationist; economic sovereignty isn’t the same as economic isolation. Canada does need other nations, especially the U.S., and other nations need what Canada can provide.

But there’s comfort in the fact that Canada can be self-sufficient in many areas – intellectual capital, food, energy, forestry products, freshwater, even vaccines if we made that strategic choice. If needed, we have the means to take care of our own survival. We just need to dislodge our “business as usual” assumptions and design smarter ways to do enterprise, including export-market diversification, attracting and retaining know-how in Canada and investing in critical infrastructure.

The point being, we ought not to be lulled into a false sense of security by Mr. Manchin’s notion of an invisible border between Canada and the U.S.

Link to original article: The Globe And Mail