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How important is Canada to us?

Mar 24, 2015

I spent some time yesterday with Douglas George, the Canadian consul general in Detroit.  We often take Canada pretty much for granted, which is precisely what we shouldn’t do.

We sometimes half-forget that it is, after all, a major foreign country stretching across our entire northern border, and which actually has more land area than we do.

Most Americans don’t realize that Canada is, by far, our largest trading partner.

Even many Detroiters don’t know that the Ambassador Bridge is the financially most important border crossing in the world. On average, well over a million dollars in goods will cross that bridge in the time it takes you to read to this essay.

That’s nearly a hundred and fifty billion worth a year. If something happened to that bridge, we’d all be in major trouble.

Yet if we don’t always realize how important Canada is to us, the Canadians never forget how important we are to them. They operate what amounts to a mini-embassy housed in Detroit’s Renaissance Center, with a staff of experts responsible for diplomatic, cultural and trade relations with Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. 

Consul General George himself is a major diplomat who most recently was ambassador to Kuwait.

But he is also sort of a local boy, who grew up in Sarnia, right across from Port Huron; growing up, he and his friends often came to Detroit for concerts.

His father was an attorney who was deeply involved in running the Blue Water Bridge, so George understands bridge and border issues, and knows how important it is that a new one is built in Detroit.

Diplomats are usually not given to criticizing the nations where they are stationed, and George is circumspect in what he says. But his government would be entirely justified if they were completely frustrated with us.

This is nothing new, by the way.

Years ago, I read a fascinating book by journalist Lawrence Martin called The Presidents and the Prime Ministers, which documented a history of American high-handedness and insensitivity to Canadian concerns. Americans have overlooked Canada, treated it as a poor stepchild, or just ignored it.

During the Reagan Administration, this non-benign neglect was so bad that the wife of one of Canada’s ambassadors caused a sensation when she suggested that to get our attention, “Maybe we should invade South Dakota, or something.”

These days, relations seem particularly bad, especially between President Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Consul General George, who knows oil issues, thinks the President is making a mistake in rejecting the Keystone pipeline, something he believes offers us the promise of liberation from dependence on Venezuela and OPEC.

Canada also would be justified in resenting that not only is Lansing not putting up any money for the New International Trade Crossing Bridge, Washington wasn’t even willing to pay up front for the customs plaza any international border crossing needs.

Decades from now, Canada will supposedly be paid back out of our share of the tolls. Yet our nation needs this bridge as much as they do. Canada is unlikely to ever “invade South Dakota or something,” to get our attention. But when it comes to America’s most important bilateral relationship, I am glad that one nation is being a grownup.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.