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Reach of the American "octopus" calls for stamina in Canada-U.S. relations

Appeared in the Calgary Sun
Authors:
Release Date: November 3, 2011
Pierre Trudeau once compared Canada’s relationship with the United States to sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly the elephant; one is affected by every twitch and grunt. But it seems today a more apt description of the American governmental system is that of an octopus, whose many arms are ready to suck the life out of Canadian interests at any time with little regard for the overall relationship between our two nations.

Let’s look at how some of these arms are currently encircling – and blocking – our long-standing trade relationship with our neighbours to the south.

The octopus’s first arm is found in the U.S. Department of Commerce, which is once again proposing extra levies on Canadian softwood lumber. With our trees dying as a result of pine beetle infestation, cut rates have increased but apparently, the Department of Commerce feels we are harvesting too many trees, too quickly. 

Next is the arm of the Department of Homeland Security, always ready to add more security checks, more fees, and more border programs. Now Homeland Security is musing about building fences along part of our border. Few Canadians have likely heard of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, but this arm of the octopus recently had a few folks walk across a stretch of our 8,500 kilometre border with video cameras in hand, looking for certain proof that more security is needed. How to physically secure the border, half of which half is water, is not GAO’s concern.

Yet another arm of the octopus extends from the White House which did not even wait for Congressional approval before imposing “Buy American” provisions on some $100 billion in public works stimulus spending contained in the new Jobs Bill. Congress itself represents another arm of the octopus, recently adding protectionist labels on beef and pork products thereby making it more difficult for Canadian producers to remain a part of North America’s integrated supply chain.

Strangely, a significantly large arm of the octopus is hard at work strangling plans to provide the U.S. with additional supplies of oil. The U.S. State Department, normally a friendly arm when it comes to Canada, was asked a simple question by TransCanada Corporation two years ago: would it allow TransCanada to build another oil pipeline to supply heavy refineries in the Houston area with Canadian crude oil? Never mind that a myriad of pipelines already criss-cross the border, shipping crude oil the United States; never mind that Canada offers a steady, secure supply of oil unlikely to be halted due to political unrest or  OPEC machinations. Two years ago, the answer to the question seemed obvious. But here we are, still waiting.

The Internal Revenue Service extended its octopus arm into Canada, looking for taxes and penalties allegedly owed by dual Canadian-American citizens, even though they may not have earned a dime in the United States for decades. And just when you think you knew all the arms of the octopus, a new one emerges in the form of a cross-border levy of $5.50 on each Canadian wanting to enter the United States. Ironically, this arm popped up just as the U.S. signed a free trade deal with Columbia.

Meanwhile, Canadian and American governments are in the final stages of negotiating an agreement to reduce border wait times and paperwork, as well as sharing security duties on a shared perimeter. But out of the blue appears another arm of the octopus, this time in the form of the U.S. Federal Maritime Agency which argues that a $143 levy should be paid on each container shipped through a Canadian west coast port and destined for the United States. The agency claims Canada is subsidizing its ports to attract more container traffic. The fact the United States heavily subsidizes its infrastructure building apparently is not a concern of this arm of the beast.

Unfortunately, Canadian negotiators cannot walk away in disgust or despair. Our trade and security partnership with the United States is based on our own benefit and self-interest, not on how sophisticated or friendly the U.S. government acts towards us. Still, it takes steady nerves and a strong stomach these days to handle Canadian-American relations.


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