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US Canadian studies programs suffocating

September 30, 2009

This year has been a roller coaster ride for Canada-US relations. But those who study the relationship have also found themselves on shaky ground. Falling endowments, budget cuts, program downsizing and even the closure of two long-standing Canadian studies programs captured our attention and brought into focus how far the economic recession has reached.

We witnessed the collapse of major financial institutions over the past year almost as an abstraction, collateral in a contracting global economy, but news of Canadian studies programs shutting their doors in both Canada and the United States hit a little too close to home.

On April 1, the Centre for Canadian Studies (CNS) at Simon Fraser University closed after losing its entire budget. Several months later we learned that Bowling Green State University’s Canadian Studies Center would close after an important line item in the Ohio state budget was zeroed out. The Center was known for its strong external relationships with the business community, and had positioned itself as a leader among national and international agencies focused on Canadian issues.

We are reassured when economists tell us that endowments and 401K portfolios will eventually recover from their losses, but what about intellectual capital? When a program of specialized knowledge closes, the loss is often unrecoverable. Sustainable environments are critical in delivering research, which leads to better policies. So we should all be concerned when leading Canadian studies programs disappear at a time when the bilateral relationship requires more, not less, informed opinion from experts.

From Buy American to Country-of-Origin Labelling (COOL), from the securitization of the border to Canada’s exclusion from US renewable energy markets, from the imposition of new lumber tariffs to the misrepresentation of Canadian health care by segments of the US media, managing the Canada-US relationship has become an increasingly complex exercise.

In a mid-year review of Canada-US relations, Leslie Campbell wrote in Embassy that “we consistently underestimate the momentum of the security imperatives now ruling Washington, and always overestimate Canada’s capital in the Capitol.”

On Aug. 5, a week following Campbells’ mid-year review, the nomination hearing was held for recently appointed US ambassador to Canada David Jacobson. One member of the 21-member Senate Foreign Relations committee attended the hearing.

According to Fen Hampson, director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, Canada is “not a super-high priority and it’s not just Obama, it’s Congress as well…. We have difficulty registering with a lot of Congress people.”

Scotty Greenwood, executive director of the Canadian American Business Council, sees it differently: “That President Obama is sending Ambassador Jacobson as his personal representative is a tremendous compliment to Canada and an important statement about the value the United States places on the bilateral relationship,” she said.

In fairness, any actual or perceived lack of traction in Washington is not for lack of initiative on the part of the Harper government. This year saw an unprecedented number of visits to Washington by ministers and legislators. Harper himself has paid three visits to date. Yet these high-level engagements with Washington are only one part of the equation in bringing greater awareness to the raft of unresolved issues on the bilateral agenda. Academic opinion should not be discounted. It is critical to dispelling myths, misinformation and presenting the issues in an apolitical context. In short, advocacy must be conducted on multiple levels.

The angle we are looking from will determine whether or not the glass is half full or half empty. But when we see green shoots, we must cultivate them. Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University, for example, are collaborating on a project focused on alternative energy development, regional economic development, and urban transit in the Great Lakes region. MSU’s Canadian Studies Center and the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research (IPPSR) also co-hosted Canadian Ambassador to Washington Michael Wilson earlier this year as part of an economic development and trade forum attended by a large group of business and political leaders, scholars and association executives.

The Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University has released a number of valuable reports this year, including a “Border Barometer” assessing key border performance indicators for major regions along the US-Canadian border such as trade flows, vehicle crossings, bi-national governance networks and even NEXUS enrollment. The research revealed that regional variation is a key theme for policymakers to consider when thinking about border governance. Trans-Boundary Wildlife Conservation and Management in Cascadia is another research project which will shed light on how government policies impact cross-border ecosystem management.

Another green shoot is the appointment of Manitoba Premier Gary Doer as Canada’s next ambassador to the US. In a recent Globe and Mail op-ed, Colin Robertson, a career foreign service officer who previously served as minister (advocacy) at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, wrote: “Mr. Doer’s appointment is a reminder of the vital role these provincial leaders play in the hidden wiring of the Canada-US relationship. They are sensitized to the efficient flow of goods and people across our borders, what with trade representing employment for more than seven million Americans. They actively reach out to counterpart governors, state and local legislators on practical matters such as reciprocity in procurement.”

Advocacy must involve multiple actors and approaches from a wide range of experts and opinion makers from both sides of the border. We must continue to educate policy makers, university administrators, and government officials about the value brought to the table by the academic. Policies which cut across borders cannot be developed in a vacuum, nor can they ignore analysis built on pragmatism and facts.

Academics who study Canada don’t just research the country, they live it. By cutting their funding, they are excluded from a dialogue which will only starve the bilateral relationship of oxygen.

David Archibald is executive director of the Washington-based Association for Canadian Studies in the United States.