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Some day we'll wish for a permeable U.S. border
Friday, October 19, 2007
OTTAWA — Canada and Mexico do well, as nations, buying and selling things in the United States - as do Canadians and Mexicans who habitually cross national borders to play and to toil there. Canada and the U.S. traded more than $530-billion (U.S.) in goods and services last year, commerce at the rate of $1-million a minute. Canada's trade surplus with the U.S. last year was $73-billion. Mexico and the U.S. traded more than $330-billion in goods and services. Mexico's trade surplus with the U.S. was $66-billion.
For the two relatively small countries that live next door to the United States, you can round off the combined trade surplus at an invigorating - the fashionable word these days would be "robust" - $140-billion a year.
Canada now sells so much to the U.S. - $300-billion worth a year - that 37 states count Canada as their No. 1 foreign trading partner. (Take Texas. The two-way trade between Canada and Texas exceeds $20-billion a year. The Lone Star State hosts 886 Canadian-owned companies that directly employ 30,000 Texans and indirectly sustain another 500,000.) Mexico sells so much to the U.S. ($200-billion) that 22 states count it as either their No. 1 or No. 2 foreign trading partner.
And this merely measures the things that cross the two borders. The people who cross these borders are setting robust records, too.
In any given year, individual Canadians and Americans make as many as 200 million separate border crossings for business purposes, holidays, shopping, medical care or visits to friends and relatives - though some of them do so much more frequently than others. Sixteen million cars pass through the Windsor-Detroit border crossings each year; 10 million cars pass over the international bridges that connect Ontario with New York State.
In one U.S. study of foreign travellers, published this year, statisticians calculated that Canadians spent 120 million "person-nights" in the U.S. in 2006. They spent 2.8 million person-nights in the Capital Region (Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.) alone. Although 70 per cent of Canadians who make casual cross-border excursions say they're in the States primarily for shopping, more than 40 per cent report that they also visit friends or relatives.
Forty per cent of Americans live in states that share a border either with Canada or Mexico.
Ninety per cent of Canadians live within a couple of hours of the border, where crossing - until 9/11 - has always been easy. No visa required. No paperwork either.
Mexicans have simply made themselves at home in the U.S. More than 42 million Mexicans (or Americans of Mexican descent) live and work in the United States, 12 million of them illegally. When you cross the Mexico-U.S. border - through the multiple traffic lanes, say, at San Diego - you could swear that all of them commute. More Mexicans live in the United States than Canadians live in Canada.
From a historical perspective, of course, proportionately more Canadians have crossed the border and stayed in the U.S. than Mexicans. Back then, though, the border was simply irrelevant. Canadians were free to live anywhere in North America that they wanted.
Call it an almost perfect example of labour-force mobility rights. Between 1860 and 1910, Canada's population grew from 3.5 million to 5.5 million. In these same years, by some estimates, 2.8 million Canadians migrated to the States - most of them without asking permission from anyone. More than 900,000 of these were French-speaking Canadians. Had these border-crossing migrants remained in Canada, we would now have almost twice the population that we have.
Canada's border with the U.S. acquired a mythic dimension - and deserved it.
Though often hampered by misguided tariffs, the economic integration of three North American neighbours proceeded apace in a natural way - however disorderly and, occasionally, illegally. (The undefended border worked perfectly through Prohibition.)
The word now used to describe this border phenomenon is "porous." A better term would be "permeable," which eliminates the pejorative implication of "porous."
It was 9/11, of course, that made an impermeable border inevitable. In the months after the terrorists struck, the U.S. proposed a North American security perimeter that would have gotten rid of the anachronistic border crossings. The choice for Canada was simple. Canada could position itself inside a North American security perimeter - or remain outside it. In one of his very worst mistakes, former prime minister Jean Chrétien decided that Canada would remain outside.
The Americans are now building an impermeable security fence around the United States. In years to come, Canadians will remember nostalgically the border that didn't work and will thoroughly curse the new one that does.
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