Canada’s Relationship with the United States: Living with the Giant

James Lee
International Affairs Section

As U.S. President John F. Kennedy said about the relationship between Canada and the United States, “Geography has made us neighbours. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies.”

More than 50 years later, his statements remain true. The relationship between the two countries is one of the closest and most extensive in the world, and the United States continues to be a top priority for Canada and Canadian parliamentarians.

According to Embassy, in Canada’s 41st Parliament, the United States was cited more often in debates and parliamentary committee meetings than the European Union and the next five most frequently mentioned countries combined.

Understanding the relationship

Several contextual points bear noting as parliamentarians seek to understand the mutually beneficial Canada–U.S. relationship, and the cooperation that takes place between the two countries bilaterally, regionally and internationally.

First, the relationship involves thousands of daily interactions between federal governments, provinces and states, businesses and individuals. Despite high-profile irritants that vary over time, almost all bilateral interactions occur without incident, and are effectively “under the radar.”

As well, for all of their similarities, the two countries have very different political systems. One consequence is that a Canadian prime minister with a majority government has fewer constraints on the use of political power than does an American president interacting with the U.S. Congress.

Third, given asymmetries between the two countries, the United States has always been more important to Canada than the reverse. Consequently, Canada must often adapt to changing U.S. economic, geopolitical and other priorities.

In addition, the terrorist attacks of September 2001 significantly increased the American emphasis on security, including at U.S. borders. As a result, the movement of goods and people across the Canada–U.S. borders has been negatively affected.

In these contexts, Canada has an incentive to establish rules of engagement with the United States. Consequently, hundreds of bilateral treaties and other arrangements help to structure cooperation between the countries, and assist in resolving disputes as they arise.

Enhancing economic prosperity

Canada and the United States have long had one of the largest economic relationships in the world.

One important element is bilateral trade in goods and services, which totalled nearly US$760 billion in 2014. On average, about US$1.4 million in two-way goods and services trade occurred every minute of every day.

Elements of the bilateral economic relationship are based on the framework provided by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which also includes Mexico. The three countries are among those that negotiated the recently concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.

Moreover, to enhance their competitiveness and prosperity, Canada and the United States have been working to strengthen cooperation on regulations through the Regulatory Cooperation Council.

Finally, the two countries have been working together in the context of the Beyond the Border initiative. This initiative recognizes the need to strike the proper balance between facilitating the movement of legitimate goods and hundreds of thousands of people per day across the shared borders on one hand, and security on the other.

Ensuring security and defence

In addition to their focus on the security of their shared borders, Canada and the United States have been allies on defence issues for decades, cooperating closely on the continent and abroad.

The most well-known bilateral arrangement is the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD). This arrangement is the only one in which the United States allows a foreign power to participate directly in the defence of the U.S. homeland on an ongoing basis.

Internationally, Canada–U.S. military cooperation in countries such as Afghanistan has often occurred under the aegis of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), or other coalition operations.

Protecting the environment

Because the movement of water, air and wildlife does not respect borders, Canada and the United States work together at both federal and subnational levels as they protect their respective and their joint environments.

For example, since the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, the two countries have protected the flows and levels of transboundary waters. The federal governments have also signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, while provinces and states in the region have cooperated to control water transfers and diversions.

Regarding air quality, Canada and the United States have signed the 1991 Air Quality Agreement in relation to acid rain. The agreement was expanded in 2000 to address the movement of air pollutants associated with ground-level ozone.

Climate change is an international issue, and the federal governments have cooperated in a number of related areas, including the U.S.–Canada Clean Energy Dialogue. As well, some provinces and California are participating in a greenhouse gas emissions trading program, known as the Western Climate Initiative.

Influencing the United States

Canada can attempt to inform and influence U.S. perceptions and actions using a number of approaches.

The embassy in Washington, D.C. is the centre of Canada’s diplomatic efforts in the United States. Its work is supported regionally through a number of trade and consular offices.

The Government of Canada’s advocacy in Washington is aimed at both the White House and the U.S. Congress, which many now characterize as lacking bipartisan cooperation. The Government of Canada also works throughout the United States in cooperation with Canadian provinces, as well as with other Canadian and American stakeholders.

Parliamentarians’ advocacy of Canadian positions in the United States occurs primarily with U.S. legislators. In part, parliamentarians carry out such activities through the efforts of the Canada–United States Inter-Parliamentary Group.

Positive interactions between Canadian and American governmental leaders can contribute to the relationship in both symbolic and practical ways. In addition to bilateral meetings, Canada’s prime minister and the American president can also meet at international summits, such as those of the G7 and the G20.

As well, they and Mexico’s president participate in North American Leaders Summits, at which the three leaders discuss common challenges and opportunities facing the continent. Canada is to host the next such summit in 2016.

Canada - U.S. relationship infographic, featuring points of discussions between Canadian and American counterpartsSources

Related resources

Government of Canada, Canada–U.S. Relations

Embassy of the United States, Ottawa, Canada, Canada-United Sates Relations Overview

Gowans, Dylan. Canadian Trade and Investment Activity: Canada–United States, Publication No. 2015-77-E, Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 16 November 2015.