By Carlo Dade
Published in the Calgary Herald and Regina Leader-Post

November 18, 2020

For Western Canada, how to prepare for the new U.S. administration is a question best put to our immediate neighbours to the south, not necessarily to other provinces or even to Ottawa.

In the aftermath of the recent U.S. election, we in Canada are not the only ones scrambling to prepare for the Biden years. A quick glance south easily produces a map of states asking similar questions and working through similar scenarios with the new administration on the environment, natural resource policy and a host of other issues that are top concerns in Western Canada. And like the western provinces, many of these states are not looking east for solutions.

Even though ultimate power on many issues important for the West rests with the federal government, there are issues, especially those that fall under provincial jurisdiction, where provinces can take the lead and, as needed, the feds can support or ratify. It’s a tactic Quebec has perfected in advancing its interests outside of Canada.

One of the early, significant achievements on climate change, North America’s first attempt to implement a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions, came not from Ottawa and Washington, D.C., but instead from Sacramento, Queen’s Park and Quebec City. The first modern push for a Canada-U.S. trade agreement came not at a summit between a president and prime minister but from Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed and Henry (Scoop) Jackson, the U.S. senator from Washington state, in the early 1980s. More recently, former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall put co-operation on carbon capture for clean coal on the U.S.-Canada agenda by raising it with western governors at their annual meeting.

This is the path western premiers need to take — develop solutions with like-minded western states and go to Ottawa, which will have its hands full, with solutions to problems, not requests for help.

State-provincial agreements arise because of common interests as well as unique working relationships between provinces and states and between governors and premiers. They also arise when necessity meets lack of understanding, indifference or lack of capacity to deal with peculiar regional issues by federal governments.

There are immediate steps that Prairie governments can take. Some of these are already in progress and need only a signal of reaffirmation to our partners.

First along that line, western premiers need to commit to participating at the western governors’ association annual meetings. The Prairie provinces regularly attend meetings of state legislators but miss the more important, higher-level meetings.

In 2017, then Montana governor Steve Bullock, who was hosting the summer meeting, explicitly invited the western premiers to join 11 governors to discuss the upcoming NAFTA renegotiation. Then Saskatchewan premier Wall, who drove all the way from Regina, and Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, who RSVP’d but ran into a family emergency, were the only premiers to respond. This sent a message that still resonates down south. Out East, Atlantic premiers meet each year with New England governors. Out West, it’s hit or miss — one year we’re there, the next few we are not. Going forward that has to change. Clear commitments now will help.

More than just attending to build relationships, western premiers have to bring something to the table that matters both to the governors as well as us. The states and provinces around the Great Lakes have their own regional competitiveness agenda. On the West Coast, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon are linking their economies together in the Cascadia Innovation Corridor; Atlantic Canada and New England have set common GHG targets.

With the change in the administration, there is both the opportunity and shared need to reset our agenda with our closest neighbours. In a deeply divided U.S., having every approach to the Americans on Canadian issues come from or be tied to the federal capitals will not work, especially out West.

The Prairie provinces need to do as other provinces do and take the lead on forging a new path with western states to resolve problems common and unique to the region.

In doing so, they should find eager and willing partners to the south.

Carlo Dade is the director of the Trade and Investment Centre at the Canada West Foundation.