So many of us are focused on the immediate impacts the pandemic is having on our lives — our children’s education, employment stability, the fate of our neighbourhood watering hole — that many more nuanced issues which will arise in post-pandemic times have been shelved.
Who knows what level of importance it will prove to have, but the Canada West Foundation raised one of those issues, subnational linkages — engagements between provinces and states — in a roundtable discussion on Tuesday.
It turns out that in the Prairie provinces, we weren’t really doing it that well before the pandemic.
The consensus among the panellists — an Alberta MLA, a state senator from Alaska, the economic development CEO of Lethbridge and the former CEO of the Business Council of Manitoba — is that not only would more "Talking to the Neighbours over the Fence Post-COVID" (the name of the event) be a good thing, but it also has to be done with the awareness that some conditions have changed.
While there are some in this country who might be less than enthusiastic about participating in any more dialogue than is absolutely necessary with the U.S., what with the recent flirtations with anti-democratic regulations, capricious tariffs and the lacklustre commitment to scientific and sociological realities south of the border.
But that would be done at our own peril.
The U.S. remains the overwhelmingly largest trading partner for every province in the country.
And regardless of any further isolationist trade policies the Biden administration may contemplate, natural resource issues pertaining to things like fire suppression, water conservation, transportation and energy issues will never just stop at the border.
Carlo Dade, the director of Canada West Foundation’s Trade & Investment Centre, noted that on the east and west coasts and in the Great Lakes region, premiers and governors regularly meet, but that is not the case with the Prairie premiers and their counterparts in the U.S. Midwest and Mountain West.
The value of subnational engagement is understood when there is a problem to be solved or there is a big ribbon-cutting event or a crisis to be averted.
But even those occasions require work to have been done beforehand. A cold call of introduction does not cut it.
"Doing the work means travelling, it means spending money to host, it means devoting time to sessions like this where we just talk," Dade said. "We have a problem occasionally on both sides of the border with publics that are unwilling to spend the money to do the work that’s not linked to ribbon cutting but just enabling the relationship to continue.
"When 90 per cent of your exports go to one market and 75 per cent of two-way trade on both sides… when your largest trading partner comes calling we have to do the work and we have to spend the money to do the work."
Don Leitch, the former CEO of the Business Council of Manitoba, made reference to Gary Doer’s contention that his effectiveness as Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. was greatly enhanced by his regular appearance at western governors meetings for 10 years straight.
But Tom Begich, an Alaska state senator and the U.S. co-chair of the Canada Relations Committee, said the conditions for subnational engagement has changed for a couple of reasons. One is that the U.S. is on a faster pace of recovery than Canada and that is going to alter dynamics of cross-border issues.
The other is the new political conditions in the U.S.
"The (American political) parties have become deeply oppositional and less apt to collaborate and co-operate," he said. "That will complicate our relationship with Canada. It is an issue that most don’t talk about."
But Nathan Neudorf, the MLA for Lethbridge East MLA and Alberta’s representative to the Council of State Governments Midwest and West, reminded the panel that regardless of shifting political dynamics in the two countries, "Economic recovery is a high priority around the globe, including our U.S. neighbour and a key part of that is enhancing collaboration with partnerships beyond our borders."
He also made the point that despite the global travel restrictions, we at least have all been lucky enough to have technology already in place that has allowed us to connect virtually, which has "played a huge role in keeping communications and relationships strong."
It is an understatement to say Manitoba companies rely on the U.S. market and perhaps we have all been guilty of taking that for granted.
It would be a valuable exercise to take another look at strategies that will sustain that reality.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.