5 Canadian issues facing the next U.S. president

Amid all the feisty back-and-forth between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney during this U.S. election, there was barely a mention of Canada.

While the Republican challenger has made a repeated reference to the Keystone XL pipeline project in his campaign speeches, the only other time Canada registered in the presidential debates was a passing mention of the country's 15 per cent corporate tax rate, something Romney and his vice-presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, praised.

Yet no matter who wins Tuesday, he will face a growing number of pressing issues on the Canada-U.S. front.

David Wilkins, the U.S. ambassador to Canada under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2009, says it's a relationship that is vital on both sides of the border.

"Seventy per cent of Canadian exports go to the U. S.," he observed, in an interview from Greenville, S.C. "We're important to Canada. Canada's important to us. We need to do all we can to enhance the relationship."

Here's a look at the issues he and other Canada-U.S. watchers feel will land on the big desk in the Oval Office in the months and years to come.

Wilkins puts energy policy at the top of the list of Canadian issues facing the next U.S. president.

"It is a huge part of our trade relationship and obviously the controversial issue right now is the approval of the Keystone pipeline," said Wilkins.

"I think that has the most immediate and profound impact on the relationship of the two countries. It can mean thousands of jobs in the U.S. It can mean more Canadian energy flowing to the U.S. and would give us a little more energy independence from some of the other countries that we depend on that don't necessarily like us, like Venezuela."

Romney has said he will approve Keystone XL, a 1,900-kilometre project that would carry oilsands crude from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Obama initially welcomed TransCanada Corp.'s $7.6-billion plan, but put it temporarily on hold late last year, asking the State Department to take another look at a new route that would bypass the environmentally sensitive Sandhills area in Nebraska.

Keystone XL has faced significant opposition from environmentalists, who both oppose oilsands development and view the pipeline itself as an ecological disaster waiting to happen.

Don Abelson, director of the Canada-U.S. Institute at Western University in London, Ont., says energy policy is a critical cross-border issue that's not going to go away.

"Both Obama and Romney are very well aware of what's going on in Western Canada and how the United States could benefit from that, so there's been a lot of discussion about North American energy independence and lessening their dependence on the Middle East."

In his view, Abelson says "first and foremost" among the Canadian issues facing the next U.S. president is "our concern about trade and the border."

"It's always a concern that not only the next president but the next Congress looks favourably upon the importance of the trade relationship between the two countries and that as committed as both countries are to maintaining a secure border, that they don't lose sight of the importance of allowing for the unfettered movement of goods and services."

In the past four years, there have been some protectionist tendencies on the U.S. side, including Buy America clauses in bills, one of which, restricting public works projects to U.S.-made steel and manufactured goods, was passed by Congress

"I think there was some expectation that when Barack Obama became president in 2008 that he would not be as committed to thickening the border," says Abelson. But "clearly he has been."

Wilkins, a Republican, also feels that Buy America clauses are protectionist and not helpful.

"I'm hopeful that they won't come up again, but I think if you have an Obama administration the likelihood is higher than if you have a Romney administration."

Late last year, Canada and the U.S. signed a new perimeter security and trade agreement that aimed to make everything from travel to cross-border business easier.

But the deal came with negotiations to ease American security concerns and means the two countries will share information about who enters and exits the country.

Canada will adopt two U.S. screening measures: an electronic travel authorization for visitors who don't need visas to travel to Canada, and a system to deny boarding to inadmissible passengers before they get on the plane.

Security at the border is another "huge" Canadian issue for the next U.S. president, but Abelson doesn't think it will necessarily become harder for people crossing from one country to another.

"I think we'll continue to see co-operation between both countries in terms of sharing intelligence and information," he says, adding that more is also going to have to be done when it comes to border infrastructure such as bridges and roads.

Abelson says Canada should be concerned about the foreign policy direction of the next U.S. administration.

"I don't think Canadians have the appetite or the stomach for going back to a time where the United States was putting pressure on us to become involved in military conflicts," he says, adding "the issue that's going to be on the agenda of the next president will be Iran and possibly Syria.

"From a Canadian perspective, we want to be very careful that regardless of who's occupying the Oval Office, that we are not under pressure or put under intense pressure to become involved in future military conflicts unless our direct national security interests are at stake."

And then there's China. Canada's navy played a key role this summer in the world's largest international naval exercise, which has as a main worry the possibility of a less-than-friendly China.

The U.S. was a big player in the exercise, and it came about six months after Obama signalled a foreign policy "pivot," pointing to the Pacific rather than keeping the longstanding focus on the Middle East and Europe.

With Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government also signalling great interest in selling resources like oil to China, Canada could find itself in a rather sensitive spot reconciling those sometimes differing perspectives.

Gary Doer, Canada's ambassador to the U.S., told reporters earlier this month that one of the most important issues for Canada in the U.S. election will be whether the winner can avoid sending the U.S. economy over the so-called "fiscal cliff."

Obama and the Republican-controlled Congress have been deadlocked over the U.S. budget and face a Jan. 1 deadline for a deal. If there isn't one, a series of pre-set spending cuts and tax increases kick in and could have the effect of slowing an already fragile U.S. economic recovery.

Doer wouldn't say which candidate or party he feels is best equipped to break the budget impasse in Congress.

But no matter who wins an election that in the U.S. has focused primarily on the economy, Abelson sees a huge challenge getting the agreement needed on Capital Hill to sort out the looming budget and debt questions.

"I agree with Gary Doer that of course the economy is the most important issue, but as we saw during the discussion over the debt crisis, how bad do things have to become for both sides to work together?"

Every country in the world, Canada included, is affected by how the U.S. economy plays out, suggests Abelson.

"Our trade relationship, the spillover effect into our own country, of course, that's one of the reasons we need to pay very close attention to what's going on in Washington."

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