OTTAWA — Federal officials have been on a months-long campaign to surreptitiously slip the name Gordie Howe into conversations with top-level American counterparts to promote the new border crossing that will bear the hockey player’s name.
The plan hatched earlier this year required government departments to mention the new bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ont., in any ”messaging” on the Canada-U.S. relationship with top politicians and stakeholders, and remind them at every opportunity that the White House supports the project.
A presentation outlining the strategy to top civil servants said the goal was to “educate influencers on the importance of the Windsor-Detroit corridor and the new crossing to the U.S. economy.”
The proposed six-lane crossing is aimed at easing congestion at the border that is largely funnelled through the privately owned Ambassador Bridge, the busiest crossing between Canada and the United States.
The new bridge won’t be completed until at least 2022, provided construction starts next year as planned. The project is expected to cost about $4.8 billion, a tab the Canadian government and a private developer will cover as part of a deal to get the bridge built without the need for congressional approval, which had been impossible to secure.
In return, Canada will receive all the revenues from the new bridge to pay off construction costs.
At the time the deal was struck, no one was talking about tearing up the North American Free Trade Agreement. Then Donald Trump got elected president and demanded the decades-old trade pact be renegotiated.
The May presentation, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, suggests the Gordie Howe bridge project became part of Liberal efforts to keep NAFTA from falling apart. The presentation and accompanying briefing note for a meeting of deputy ministers repeatedly stresses that Trump sees the bridge as a strategic piece of cross-border infrastructure.
Brook Simpson, a spokesman for Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi, said the bridge topic — in particular its place in a retooled NAFTA — is raised whenever Sohi speaks with U.S. politicians.
“This project creates a critically important connection that will greatly improve the flow of trade and its reliability once built,” Simpson said. “Regular engagement with U.S. governments at the federal, state, and municipal levels helps maintain the political and public support the project enjoys.”
The constant reminders about the bridge are also likely part of efforts to get the U.S. to commit to providing enough border guards at the new and existing border crossings to avoid bottlenecks, said Lydia Miljan, associate professor of political science at the University of Windsor.
“That’s where the big battles are going to come,” Miljan said.
“You have to educate Washington on the value of having not just the physical infrastructure, but the human infrastructure in place.”
Stuart Soroka, a professor of communication studies and political science at the University of Michigan, said national governments regularly lobby neighbouring jurisdictions on large infrastructure projects to maintain support and avoid a counter-movement.
“But it does raise some interesting questions about what governments should be spending money on,” Soroka said, ”and whether it’s OK for governments to advertise this stuff.”