Sunrise at Montobello .. what kind of future is there for what kind of North America?

Aug 22nd, 2007 | By | Category: Countries of the World

The ho-hum quality of the 2007 annual meeting of the leaders of the United States, Mexico, and Canada – held this year “in a massive cedar log chateau” at Montebello, Quebec – was nicely summarized in headlines from the three leading US newspapers of record. According to the New York Times, e.g., there were “No Breakthroughs at Canada Talks,” and “Bush’s Talks With Neighbors Are Overshadowed by Storm.” (That would be Hurricane Dean of course.) As reported by the Washington Post: “Bush aims at closer ties with Canada and Mexico,” but then, more urgently, “Bush Concerned About Hurricane Victims.” The Los Angeles Times, perhaps because it has more intimate experience with natural disasters, was not so distracted by Hurricane Dean. Its story was “Leaders of N. America hold talks,” and “Bush dismisses talk of an EU-like bloc.” Which finally raises the most poignant question: Is there any kind of future for any kind of more “integrated” North American community at all?

Some still say yes … but …

There certainly are those who still say that some kind of integrated North American future is both inevitable and highly desirable. On the eve of the Montebello summit the Toronto Globe and Mail published an article by Robert Pastor, author of Toward a North American Community: Lessons from the Old World for the New. Mr. Pastor argued that: “Whatever the three leaders actually do in Montebello, there will be protests that they are doing too much, but the real problem is that they are doing too little. … What the leaders should do is enunciate a vision of a North American Community and sketch a blueprint for accomplishing it.”

Of course this did not happen. And when the summit was over – especially abbreviated by Hurricane Dean (which Felipe Calderon had to hurry home to confront in Mexico) – Barbara Yaffe at the Vancouver Sun complained that: “They came. They dined on rack of Nunavut caribou with cranberries. They held a news conference. And they left.” Ms. Yaffe went on: “Prime Minister Stephen Harper has done a dismal job of communicating the imperative for closer continental integration … What he should be telling Canadians is that North America must adapt or perish in the face of lower-priced, often lower-quality, goods flooding in from abroad.”

Yet historically Canadians who want to remain part of a more or less independent country in the most northern part of North America have had their reasons for being sceptical about “closer continental integration”- ever since Article 11 of the original US Articles of Confederation in 1781 declared that: “Canada acceding to this confederation, and adjoining in the measures of the United States, shall be admitted into, and entitled to all the advantages of this Union.”

Mexico has had similar reasons for similar concerns ever since it lost Texas and California in the middle of the 19th century. (And these reasons were memorably summarized by a Mexican president of the same era, Porfirio Diaz: “Poor Mexico – so far from God and so close to the United States.” Nowadays it sometimes looks as if at least individual Mexicans are finally going to take Texas and California back – but not before they become proper US citizens first!)

Much more recently, it has been at least intriguing that neither Mexico nor Canada – the USA’s obviously closest neighbours geographically – would join in on the current War in Iraq. More recently again, it has been even more intriguing that voices against closer continental integration in North America are now being raised in the United States itself.

As James Gerstenzang explained in his August 22 report on the Montebebllo summit in the Los Angeles Times: “Two years ago, President Bush and the leaders of Canada and Mexico agreed to establish what they called the Security and Prosperity Partnership, a framework for cooperation on economic matters and shared security concerns.” But even in the USA this “SPP” initiative “has drawn increasing concern from critics, fueled by speculation on the Internet that it is masking plans to open US borders and create an entity similar to the European Union at the cost of US sovereignty. These critics fear the creation of a NAFTA superhighway’ from Mexico to Canada as a gateway into the U.S. market.”

The continental right-wing conspiracy is just not strong enough?

In the end a Globe and Mail report from August 17, by Alan Freeman, proved to have accurately enough predicted what would happen at Montebello 2007 on August 20 and 21 – even though it did not quite anticipate the interference from Hurricane Dean:

“The three leaders are all political conservatives with a strong belief in free markets and a desire for more continental integration. But political opposition to the idea in their respective countries is so ingrained that they are unlikely to get very far beyond agreeing to stronger rules on non-controversial issues like … preparation for an avian-flu pandemic.” (And as the Washington Post reported when it was all over: “A joint statement said a North American plan for avian and pandemic influenza and an intellectual property action strategy had been completed.”)

As “Jean-Franois Prud’homme, a Quebec-born political scientist who teaches at the Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City,” had similarly predicted in advance: “I don’t think there will be very much coming out of it … it’s not a good time for the idea of North America, for many domestic reasons. It’s not a very popular idea.”

Or: “Any kind of deepening of NAFTA for the U.S. is a non-starter for an administration that has virtually no political capital left,’ said Michael Shifter, vice-president of policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. Bush is so wounded, it’s hard to believe there is going to be a lot of initiative left.'”

In Canada there were some usual complaints from the usual suspects about the SPP and continental integration. On August 17 the Globe and Mail reported that “Liberal Leader Stphane Dion has issued a list of demands that he says Prime Minister Harper should make when he meets next week with U.S. President George W. Bush … First and foremost, Mr. Dion says Mr. Harper should make clear to Bush that Canada will withdraw from its current combat role in southern Afghanistan in early 2009 … Mr. Dion also wants Mr. Harper to insist that no new trade deals be negotiated that would allow water to be taken from basins in Canada.”

Michael Byers, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, “told a standing-room-only forum in Ottawa about the politics and persuasion … behind the barricades this week at Montebello, Quebec.” Mr. Byers was particularly concerned about “closer military integration” in North America, and the extent to which this was actually happening in the case of the 2,600 Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan – because “there are people who want to transform the Canadian Forces into a miniature version of the US Marine Corps and want Canada to only choose missions that involve fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States … the same people who will tell you that peace-keeping is dead.”

And then on August 21 the ever-vigilant Linda McQuaig urged that: “One thing we can be pretty sure won’t be announced when Stephen Harper, George Bush and Mexican president Felipe Calderon emerge from their summit in Montebello, Que., later today is a plan to divert Canadian water to the United States … The leaders aren’t that dumb. They know that would get the Canadian public stirred up against the Security and Prosperity Partnership, the deal they’re discussing about integrating the economies of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico … One of the most controversial charges made by Canadian critics of the SPP – including Liberal Leader Stphane Dion – is that the deal may eventually include plans to divert Canadian water to the U.S., parts of which are facing serious long-term water shortages.”

Ms. McQuaig was of course right in her prediction that the leaders “aren’t that dumb.” According to the Los Angeles Times: “Asked about such allegations at a news conference Tuesday ending two days of meetings, Bush and his fellow summit participants, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon, pretty much sneered at the complaints and speculation … A couple of my opposition leaders have speculated on massive water diversions and superhighways to the continent – maybe interplanetary, I’m not sure, as well,’ Harper said, prompting a wide grin from Bush.” At the same time, the Washington Post did quietly report that: “In Afghanistan, where Canada has 2,600 troops, Harper appears prepared to pull out by February 2009 since opposition parties oppose an extension.”

Jelly beans and the Northwest Passage …

Two other pieces of more or less hard policy intelligence – of particular interest to Canada and Canadians – at least appeared to emerge from what was otherwise pretty much the Montebello 2007 non-event, in the 19th century American historian Francis Parkman’s still magic northern forest along the Ottawa River.

The first concerns the case of Mr. David Ganong, who “each year … ships millions of tiny jellybeans to the United States from his factory strategically situated in the border town of St. Stephen, N.B. … Those U.S.-bound beans are exactly the same as the ones he sells in Canada, which should, theoretically, allow him to reap the rewards of a unified North American market …

But Mr. Ganong says he is undermined by packaging requirements that are different in each country. The killer is nutritional labelling, which varies in such things as the width of the wording (Canada requires a narrower panel), mandatory layout on a package and even the assumption of serving sizes.”

The story goes on: “That need for two formats in jellybean packaging – a microcosm of what he faces across his entire range of candy and chocolate products – is raising costs and hurting his ability to compete, he says … So he has taken up the cause of jellybean harmonization – a campaign that he carried yesterday to Montebello, Que. There he gained an ally in Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was wrapping up a summit with U.S. President George W. Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon … Is the sovereignty of Canada going to fall apart if we standardize the jellybeans? Maybe Mr. Dion thinks so,’ Mr. Harper said, referring to Liberal Leader Stphane Dion’s opposition to the Security and Prosperity Partnership, the framework for the trilateral relationship. But I don’t think so’… Mr. Ganong said he was a bit surprised, and pleased, by Mr. Harper’s support.”

Yet many of those Canadians who have actually tried Ganong jelly beans themselves may feel obliged to urge that there is one point in the story here not being adequately covered by any of Mr. Ganong, Mr. Harper, or the mainstream media. Especially if you are any connoisseur (in the manner of Ronald Reagan, e.g.), you may well feel that Ganong jelly beans are simply an inferior if inexpensive product – only to be seriously consumed when nothing better is available. And that, rather than any more sophisticated failure of continental harmonization in economic regulations, may be Mr. Ganong’s real complaint. The serious way you become competitive is by making a better product. That’s what free trade is supposed to be all about.

The second interesting point of this sort to emerge from Montebello 2007, for Canadians at least, concerns the Northwest Passage, way up in the (for the moment at any rate) truest year-round land of ice and snow. And again the Washington Post has nicely summarized the essential crux of things, as viewed inside the beltway in the capital of the USA:

“One area of dispute between the United States and Canada involves the Northwest Passage through the Arctic. In his meeting with Bush, Harper asserted Canada’s claim to the passage … The race to secure subsurface rights to the Arctic seabed heated up when Russia recently sent two small submarines to plant a tiny national flag under the North Pole … The United States and Norway also have competing claims in the vast Arctic region where a U.S. study suggests as much as 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas could be hidden. Harper has announced plans for an army training center and a deep water port.”

The story here carries on: “Harper said the U.S. and Canada have been able to manage their differences over the years, and the Northwest Passage is no exception … Bush said: “There are differences on the Northwest Passage. We believe it’s an international passageway. Having said that, the United States does not question Canadian sovereignty over its Arctic islands and the United States supports Canadian investments that have been made to exercise its sovereignty.”

Whatever your partisan feelings in Canadian federal politics may be, it seems hard not to agree that Prime Minister Harper has moved the ball ahead a few yards here – whether he really wanted to or not (and no doubt with the help of former US ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci, who recently told CTV’s Question Period that “it’s time for his country to reconsider its traditional position on Arctic sovereignty and admit that the Northwest Passage is part of Canada”).

Remembering Louis-Joseph Papineau’s Seignory?

A very final brief and perhaps somewhat too wild thought about Montebello 2007 springs from the research intelligence that it was held “on land that formerly formed part of the seignory of Louis-Joseph Papineau.”

At least some Canadians will still remember that Louis-Joseph Papineau was the leader of the Lower Canadian/French branch of the great Canadian Rebellions of 183738 – whose Upper Canadian/English branch was led by the former Mayor of Toronto, William Lyon Mackenzie. (The quaint old British imperial terms “Lower” and “Upper”, nb, simply refer to the levels of the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes waterway, and absolutely nothing else. And note too that the volunteer Canadian contingent in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, which fought side by side with the Lincoln Brigade from the USA, was the Mackenzie-Papineau Brigade, aka Mac-Paps.)

What this may finally suggest to some heritage-minded observers is that, in the very end, the only kind of plan for some useful North American community building that threatens no one’s national sovereignty will be coming from the left and not the right.

And who knows? There may actually be some grains of truth to this proposition. And that may be something the likes of Mr. Ganong and the other 29 North American business leaders who served as special advisors to the SPP at Montebello 2007 will want to consider – for the still somewhat longer term future, when some kind of somewhat more developed North American community probably will be important enough for the prosperity and security of all North Americans.

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