WASHINGTON — One Canadian premier described it as a love-in, while an American governor huskily sang out a chorus of O Canada to a group of rapt onlookers.
By all accounts, the participation of seven Canadian premiers at the high-powered National Governors Association conference on Saturday was a rousing success, infused not just with affection but with frequent pledges to continue to work on a treasured and occasionally troubled relationship.
“The Canadians are not just our closest neighbours, they’re our best friends,” Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said following an hour-long roundtable between the premiers and about 20 U.S. governors, most of them from border states.
“There’s hardly any place in the world where you could have an open border of this distance. It’s breathtaking; what a wonderful relationship.”
Throughout the roundtable, entitled “Common Border, Common Ground,” premiers and governors alike weighed in to discuss issues of mutual concern between the U.S. and Canada that included efforts to clean up the Great Lakes, the need for free and easy trade between both countries and the prospect of Canadian oil being subjected to restrictions from the Environmental Protection Agency.
“There is a very large need for Canadian crude in Minnesota,” said Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who’s considered a Republican bright light and someone who will likely make a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.
He added that any move to penalize Canadian oil producers “is very ill-advised from my standpoint.”
There was nary a sign of any support for the controversial Buy American trade policies that have caused tension between the U.S. and Canada for the past year. There was, however, an impromptu version of O Canada from Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell after he was overheard boasting to his Michigan colleague, Jennifer Granholm, that he knew the words.
“I’ve turned what I think are the best lyrics into one verse. I can’t sing; I sound like a sick squirrel, but I will try my best,” Rendell said before raspily launching into an almost-accurate rendition as Canadian reporters cheered him on.
In his remarks at the roundtable, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty urged the governors to push for barrier-free trade between the two countries.
“We need to not only protect that trading relationship, we need to enhance it,” he said, adding he was happy to hear the Obama administration intends to double exports in an attempt to pull the U.S. economy out of an enduring recession.
“I just want you to know, we’re in,” McGuinty said to laughter.
Following the roundtable, the Ontario premier reiterated what he said a day earlier: powerful Americans are now listening with an open mind to Canadian concerns.
He cited two high-level meetings Friday between the premiers and White House power brokers: Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA, and Larry Summers, President Barack Obama’s economics czar. The Summers meeting, McGuinty pointed out, ran longer than what was originally scheduled as they discussed the economic recovery.
“Those are departures, certainly from the recent president, and I think they bode well for us,” McGuinty said.
He added he was heartened by the answers he received when asking throughout his time in D.C.: “Where is the protectionist sentiment going to go, how is that going to evolve?”
“And I have been reassured that while it always has some seductive appeal, there is a new awareness that in an era of globalization, where we are all so trade-dependent, that we’ve got to guard against protectionism and ensure we keep our trade linkages strong.”
New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham described the day’s events as an important moment in contemporary Canada-U.S. relations.
“It was a huge step forward,” he said. “Often we rely on our federal governments to work on issues of national concern, but ultimately it’s at the state level and provincial level where a lot of work is done on the ground, and that’s why today you saw such a love-in, because here were governors and premiers who work on a quite regular basis on a number of files and actually get the job done.”
The National Governors Association conferences often help to set policy for both the White House and Congress. Health-care was a dominant issue of discussion at the winter meetings, with First Lady Michelle Obama on hand earlier Saturday urging the governors to help her in her efforts to combat childhood obesity in the U.S.
The premiers of Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have spent two days in the U.S. capital in the first-ever meeting between the association and its Canadian counterpart, the Council of the Federation.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who’s leading the Canadian delegation as council chairman, said he and his counterparts have raised concerns that Canadian manufacturers might be subject to punitive U.S. measures now that the EPA has warned it will start regulating carbon emissions.
The EPA made the threat in the absence of greenhouse gas laws from Congress. That legislation is stalled due to the Democrats’ recent loss of their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate with the election of a Republican to the late Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts seat. Fears that Canadian manufacturers and energy providers who produce carbon-intensive goods will suffer under tough EPA regulations are shaping up to be a simmering hot spot in Canada-U.S. relations.