By Paul Freeman
Even though there’s been much talk in recent years about promoting the “Cascadia” region, many business people aren’t sure what Cascadia means. That’s not surprising, since even supporters of this concept can’t agree on its scope.
What everyone does seem to agree on, though, is that trade and other barriers between the Pacific Northwest and Canada should be lowered so that commerce between the two regions can be increased and businesses there can more effectively compete in a global economy. To that end, a number of organizations have been formed.
As far as promoting cross-border trade, at least two of these organizations, PNWER (Pacific Northwest Economic Regional) and PACE (Pacific Corridor Enterprise Council), have enjoyed a certain measure of success. Yet, according to one prominent proponent of the Cascadia vision, each organization has certain limitations, and neither has been able to create what he calls the “missing link”: getting prominent politicians to throw their prestige behind the cross-border movement.
• PNWER: PNWER is a public-private partnership covering five states — Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington — and two provinces — Alberta and British Columbia. Based in Seattle, PNWER operates through nine working groups. Its objective is to help the five-state, two-province region become a major player in the global economy.
Interestingly, PNWER eschews any talk of Cascadia. “We don’t use Cascadia because it makes the hair stand on end of two-thirds of our members,” says Alan Bluechel, a former Washington state senator who is PNWER’s president.
PNWER’s most notable success is the development of Catalist. This computer system, which has been operating since 1994, electronically matches international and domestic trade opportunities with businesses in the PNWER region.
To publicize the opportunities in a timely way, PNWER sends 1,300 faxes a night. Those faxes are paying off, says Bluechel, pointing proudly to a recent survey of 3,500 Washington businesses that asked respondents about contracts obtained through Catalist during the previous 18 months. Six percent of those surveyed agreed to having their responses published. They had been awarded contracts valued at over $90 million.
Despite the success of Catalist, according to Alan Artibise, a professor at the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia and president of the Cascadia Institute and Research Society, a nonprofit research society in Vancouver, “PNWER’s vision is far too large with too many disparate interests.
“On one hand, they’ve done a lot of great work. On the other hand, the symmetry is wrong. It’s not an organization that hangs together. Alberta has been an active player; British Columbia has not. And because PNWER doesn’t hang together,” Artibise says, “it hasn’t captured the imagination of the public.”
• PACE: Formed in 1990, PACE is a private-sector networking organization comprising about 200 American and Canadian business people. According to Peter Norton, an accountant and financial planner in Vancouver, B.C., who serves as PACE’s treasurer, the organization operates from “Barrow to Baja. But the main focus is promoting the free movement of people, goods, services and ideas across the U.S.-Canadian border.”
PACE does a good job, says Norton, helping small businesses that want to expand across this border but don’t know who to contact and what problems they face. “People don’t understand the hows and the pitfalls,” he says.
PACE’s most visible accomplishment is the PACE lane. For a fee, noncommercial travelers can use special PACE lanes at the Peace Arch Border Crossing, the third-busiest along the U.S.-Canadian border.
Beyond that, though, says Artibise, “I’m not sure what they could claim as an achievement over the past two years except one-to-one introductions, at which they’ve been successful.”
One reason PACE, PNWER and other cross-border organizations aren’t more successful, he maintains, is “that no provincial or state politicians have found it useful to invest their credibility and leadership in cross-border issues. No one’s tried to move cross-border relationships past the bureaucracy-to-bureaucracy relationship or the nongovernment-organization-to-nongovernment-organization relationship.”
There are multiple reasons for this, he says. For one thing, politicians are elected locally, not regionally. Going to bat for a cross-border vision, whether it’s called Cascadia or something else, doesn’t get votes.
Another problem, Artibise contends, is that British Columbia’s New Democratic Party is left of center and has a “latent sense of anti-Americanism.” This sentiment surfaces, he adds, whenever efforts are made to eliminate border-crossing barriers and to improve border infrastructure, two steps essential for stronger trade links between the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada.
“There’s always a certain feeling of the relationship with America overwhelming us. For some Canadians, the border is a symbolic way for us to retain our identity,” Artibise said.
Dollars and cents
Money is an issue, too. In a paper that Artibise recently delivered at a conference on Canadian-American relations west of the Rockies, he noted that despite the acute need for high-speed rail between Portland and Vancouver, B.C., “few governments are in the mood or the position to spend the tens of millions necessary to” build it.
In Artibise’s view, to move cross-border relationships to the next level requires an advisory body, one built around the economic, cultural and other ties shared by Washington, Oregon and British Columbia — the Cascadia vision to which he subscribes. The organization would be chaired jointly by the governors of the two states and the premier of British Columbia; its members would be government officials, businesses, labor and nongovernment organizations. To keep it manageable, Artibise would limit membership to 60 people.
But even if such an organization is ever formed, says Artibise, it’s inevitable that some version of Cascadia will become reality. “The citizens have far less trouble understanding what Cascadia is than the politicians, who have trouble letting go of the idea of the nation-state and hard borders.”
Paul Freeman is a Seattle-based free-lance writer.