Canadians and Americans continue to enjoy a complex "diffuse relationship" that spans across political, economic, cultural, and social realms, said Reginald Stuart, professor of history and political science at Mount Saint Vincent University and former Woodrow Wilson Center Fulbright scholar. Stuart was joined by Christopher Sands, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, to discuss his new book Dispersed Relations: Americans and Canadians in Upper North America, at a program hosted by the Canada Institute on April 10, 2008. Stuart's presentation highlighted several facets of the continually evolving Canada-U.S. relationship and offered a brief examination of the regional, cultural, social, and political communities that form the basis of American-Canadian interdependence.

Explaining a Complex Relationship

Political interaction between Ottawa and Washington, D.C., tends to be the standard way of thinking about Canada-U.S. relations, maintained Stuart. However, such a limited perspective fails to take into account the diverse relationship between the two countries at the regional and sub-national levels, as well as strong bilateral ties within the private sector and cultural realm. According to Stuart, there needs to be a "new foundation" of thinking when discussing Canada-U.S. relations, which acknowledges the complex and multifaceted bilateral relationship.

Stuart said that while geography helps put the close bilateral relationship into context, it does not represent the sole reason why Canada and the United States have remained close friends and allies for decades. He maintained that Americans and Canadians are "extraordinarily similar" on a personal level, sharing similar values, language, and culture. These common traits are reflected by similar institutions and legal systems, which have helped forge a long-standing interdependent economic relationship between the two countries.

Looking Toward the Future

While drastic changes to the Canada-U.S. relationship are unlikely, unforeseen events, such as 9/11, can have ramifications on the bilateral relationship on economic and political levels. Stuart maintained that the post-Bush era will be defined more by continuity than change on a range of issues. He suggested that the global war on terror and Afghanistan will continue to define "the global relationship" between the two countries; he also added that initiatives to enhance security at the border will likely proceed and continue to slow the free-flow of goods, services, and people traveling across Canada and the United States. As the border thickens, said Stuart, there will be an increasingly urgent need to create bilateral institutions—similar to the International Joint Commission (IJC) or Permanent Joint Board on Defense—with enough power to effectively manage the Canada-U.S. border.

Sands also commented on the Canada-U.S. relationship, noting that the current era can be described as a "period of exemption" for Canada. Sands defined this era as one marked by U.S. policy initiatives that directly affect Canada, but are made without consulting the Canadian government and with little thought as to how certain policies might have an impact on the bilateral relationship.

Two recent examples that support this trend, noted Sands, include the U.S. government's decision to change daylight savings time, as well as recent changes to U.S. passport laws requiring everyone, including U.S. citizens, to carry passports when leaving and entering the country. While Canada was not the intended target of either of these decisions, explained Sands, both policies had the potential to disrupt trade between the two countries, and therefore had unintended economic implications for both Canada and the United States.

Adjusting to a New Era

To offset the impact of this "period of exemption" on Canada, Sands suggested that it may be necessary for Canada to try to bolster the rules-based system already in place through such agreements and institutions as NAFTA, the IJC, and the Security and Prosperity Partnership. By doing so, he said, both Canada and the United States will be able to resolve their differences more easily and effectively when conflicts arise.

Nevertheless, when discussing the future of Canada-U.S. relations, it is imperative to understand that resolutions to unforeseen disputes will continue to be driven by different regions, levels of government, and sectors within Canada and the United States. Sands offered two examples to support this view, the recent provincial/state agreements to address climate change and cooperation among Western states and provinces to develop enhanced driver's licenses with citizenship information that can be used under the Real ID act. According to Sands, this situation perfectly illustrates the "dispersed relations" described in Stuart's book that best defines the Canada-U.S. relationship and will remain evident in efforts to resolve future disputes that surface between the two countries.

Drafted by Ken Crist, Program Associate
David Biette, Director, Canada Institute