TAMPA — Things aren't going so well on our southern border, what with Mexico's gruesome drug violence spreading into U.S. cities. But at least our neighbor to the north is about as safe, stable and friendly as they come.
That was the message Michael Wilson, Canada's ambassador to the United States, brought to Tampa Bay business leaders last week as he reminded them of the "unique'' relationship between the two countries and the huge amount of cross-border trade, including that with Florida.
"We love your oranges; we love your grapefruit,'' Wilson told the luncheon crowd of 125. "Two-way trade in goods with Florida is at the rate of $1 million every hour. This is a terrific success story.'' (And one reason Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio is leading a trade delegation to Ontario in May.)
Florida also gets 2.5 million Canadian visitors a year, a fairly steady flow despite security hassles at the border that Wilson acknowledged have increased since the Sept. 11 attacks. As of June 1, U.S. citizens will need a passport to enter Canada, and Canadians may face a similar requirement for entering the United States.
"After 9/11, both countries realized there were changes that should be made in security arrangements and immigration systems,'' Wilson said. "We both made changes, but there was no coordination, no long-term planning. It's … important that we find the right balance between security and efficiency.''
Wilson, 71, was in Tampa primarily to visit U.S. Central Command, where a Canadian liaison team helps plan the war in Afghanistan. Operating in notoriously dangerous Helmand Province, center of Afghanistan's heroin poppy trade, Canada has lost 116 solders, proportionately more than any other major NATO partner including the United States.
A former investment banker with the Swiss giant UBS, Wilson stressed that Canada has one of the world's strongest financial systems. Its banks are less leveraged than those elsewhere and "the lending practices were not subject to the excesses that occurred in other countries.''
But Canada has also slipped into recession, largely because its economy is so closely tied to that of the United States, its biggest trade partner. Nonetheless, Wilson praised U.S. bailout efforts.
"The ability of the United States to mobilize vast resources in the face of economic crisis is truly remarkable,'' he said.
Given the strong relations between the two countries, which share the world's longest peaceful border, it's hardly surprising that President Barack Obama made his first foreign trip to Canada, albeit for just six hours. Wilson, ambassador since 2006, noted "good chemistry'' between the new U.S. leader and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a conservative who annoyed many Canadians with his strong support for Obama's predecessor.
"Canadians are very hopeful about the new administration and they want the Obama presidency to succeed,'' Wilson said, as the two countries work on such key issues as clean fuels and North American energy independence. Canada, not the Mideast, already is the United States' largest oil supplier.
Back in Washington, however, Wilson finds that the mood among Americans has changed from an "upbeat'' feeling right after the inauguration to a "sense that bipartisanship doesn't seem to be working.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at [email protected]