Though it is simply a line on a map, the border between Canada and the United States is an important part of Whatcom County. What happens at the border — and on either side of the border — affects the local economy. Take as an example last year’s brouhaha over exempting residents of British Columbia from paying Washington sales tax.
So it naturally follows that it would be in our best interest to know about our neighbor to the north, who also happens to be Washington’s number one trading partner.
This is where the Center for Canadian-American Studies enters the picture. Forty years ago, a group of people at Western Washington University recognized a need to better understand the relationship between the U.S. and Canada.
“There were several people who thought it was a problem that Americans knew so little about Canada,” said Don Alper, the center’s director.
“A lot of people take Canada for granted because it’s so close.”
At first, the center was little more than a coordinating program that sought to infuse Canadian studies into other classes, such as literature and economics. Interest grew quickly and by the late 1970s the university had created an official major and minor in Canadian-American Studies.
In 1979, the center finally got a home of its own: a house behind the Performing Arts Center that used to be the residence for the university president. Over the years, the building has been a huge boon for the program, especially when seeking the grants that keep the program alive.
“Having a house for the program has been very important in getting funding because it shows the commitment of the university,” Alper said.
After September 11, 2001, the attention of the nation turned to the borders. With an increase in security, the Canadian-American border was no longer as welcoming as it once was, and cross-border traffic dropped significantly.
“The wink and nod days are gone and some people want to get back to that,” Alper said. “I think those days are gone forever.”
All of the attention on the border has been good for the program, and interest in the major has grown. In 2005, the center created a new offshoot, the Border Policy Research Institute (BPRI), to gather data related to border issues.
Of the few Canadian-American Studies programs in the country, Western’s is the only one with a research institute like this, Alper said.
“That’s become a huge part of what I do because there’s increasing interest in how we manage the border,” he said. “These increased restrictions are hampering this great trade relationship we have with Canada.”
Securing the border doesn’t have to come at the expense of hindering trade, though, and that is what the center and the BPRI are working toward. And the center has received strong support for its work from business groups on both sides of the border.
“We do have a lot of commerce coming back and forth both ways. The work that Don’s organization does is criticcal to keeping those things fluid,” said Ray Hudson, Policy and communications manager for the Surrey Board of Trade.
“I’m a real booster of this work because no one else is doing it and it’s really important. The more we know about each other, the easier it is to do business.”
From Hudson’s perspective, there is still a lot of work to be done to streamline the border for businesses. Time is money for shipping companies especially, and time spent waiting at the border is lost profit. There are special truck lanes, called Free and Secure Truck (FAST) lanes, but they aren’t used as much as anticipated, Hudson said.
“With advertising, a great deal more use could be made of those facilities,” he said.
The volume of goods crossing the border has definitely slowed down in recent years, but that means this is a perfect time to test better systems, said Jim Pettinger, president and owner of International Market Access in Ferndale. Pettinger helps Canadian businesses with sales and distribution in the U.S.
“There’s just been a general slowdown, but the good news is that both countries recognize the value of cross-border trade,” Pettinger said.
“I think the Canda-U.S. business relationship will continue to get stronger, but the border will continue to be more of a formal barrier. But formalities can be smoothed out.”
Rethinking the border
The challenge for the center and the BPRI then is to find ways to make the border secure and permeable, Alper said.
That’s no small task, since this is the longest border between two countries in the world. But Alper said he is encouraged by the long history of good trading relations and cooperation among enforcement officials.
And there is certainly no shortage of cross-border issues to examine, from the tar sands to currency exchange rates.
“Border issues will continue to be big,” Alper said. “You can’t have security unless there’s cooperation on both sides and that’s the direction we’re moving.”
Attend the celebration and conference
To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the Center for Canadian-American Studies is hosting a dinner gala on April 28 and a cross-border conference on April 29.
David Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, will be the keynote speaker at the dinner at the Hotel Bellwether Ballroom. The event will also feature a silent auction to raise funds for the program. Tickets are $65 and must be purchased in advance.
The academic conference will be held April 29 at the university and will feature a host of speakers throughout the day, including a luncheon address from Bob Rae, the former premier of Ontario and current member of Parliament. Tickets to the luncheon are $20, but the rest of the conference is free and open to the public.
For more information about these events, visit www.wwu.edu/canam
Isaac Bonnell writes for Bellingham Business Journal, a division of Black Press.