Annual MISC conference draws “who’s who” of pols and pundits
By Jim Hynes
They appeared in person, by recorded video message and via live videoconferencing to discuss the close but often complicated relationship between Canada and the United States. Former presidents and prime ministers, current governors and premiers, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, Canada’s Minister of Finance, the country’s Governor General, and a host of other political players and pundits gathered at Montreal’s Omni Hotel March 24-25 to take part in Canada and the United States: Conversations & Relations, the 16th annual conference organized by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC).
The conference’s opening address was delivered by Governor General David Johnston, a former McGill Principal who helped establish MISC in 1994 and who was making his first visit to the University since his installation in September 2010.
“In a global society, the wellbeing of one nation depends upon that of all the others. We have much in common and much to learn from one another,” Johnson said of Canada and the U.S. “In fact, I wager there has been no more beneficial relationship between two nations in history, at least from the Canadian viewpoint.”
Allies, not necessarily equals
Indeed, as former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney noted, the importance placed on the relationship often depends on viewpoint or perspective, as in which side of the 49th parallel you were looking at it from.
Mulroney, who took part in the conference’s Presidents and Prime Ministers segment with former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, which included a taped message from former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, made clear that he was never under any illusion about the partnership between Canada and the U.S. being an equal one.
“It’s a partnership of equals politically, but in reality, the big player of course is the United States of America. The influence of America comes from the extraordinary power of its economy,” Mulroney said. “And because of this extraordinary power it’s able to command a military outreach without precedent in world history. And where we come in as allies and friends is to ensure that the utilization of that is positive and constructive and thoughtful.”
The second day of the conference featured a presentation on the results of a survey of public opinion in Canada and the United States, followed by the Conference’s keynote address, delivered by Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty via videoconference from Ottawa.
High speed train links?
The conference’s final conversation featured Quebec Premier Jean Charest and Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, who underscored the strong ties between the neighbouring province and state and discussed plans for future collaborations, particularly in the area of hydroelectricity and a proposed high-speed train project that would link Montreal with Boston and New York City, passing through Vermont along the way.
“This is a game changer for Montreal,” Charest said of the train link project. “If there’s a fast train between Montreal and New York, or Montreal and Boston … Montreal is not the same city anymore.”
But with the area of transportation falling largely under federal jurisdiction, Charest said, the good will between Quebec and Vermont and their mutual enthusiasm for the project may not be enough to get it off the ground and on the rails.
“I have a federal partner (in Washington) here who is enthusiastically embracing the idea we do this together,” Charest said. “But I have a federal partner in Canada that seems to be more indifferent to the project. So that’s the limits we run into.”