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Embrace a binational vision: U.S. and Canada will reap benefits of collaboration to expand trade, tourism and cultural and educational initiatives

While the prevailing discussion about our borders has focused on Mexico, there is great reason to focus on Canada to help our economy and create jobs. According to a 2007 study commissioned by the Canadian Embassy in Washington, U.S.-Canada trade supported 7.1 million American jobs. According to the Canadian government, the United States exported $247 billion in goods to Canada in 2013, most of which was mineral fuel, automobiles and auto parts.

In a recent statement, Bruce A. Heyman, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, observed that Canada-U.S. trade increased 3 percent to $759 billion in the past year.

Trade with Canada is particularly important to New York State’s economy. According to a report by the Can-Am group, Canada is the state’s largest export market with bilateral trade of $32 million. The United States also welcomes more tourists from Canada than any other country; spending by Canadian tourists in New York is estimated at $1.7 billion each year. Nearly 700,000 New York jobs depend on trade and investment with Canada.

These numbers are important, but the significance of U.S.-Canadian relations is much more than economics. Residents of Western New York and the Niagara Region of southern Ontario have historically lived as a community divided by a river and an international border, but linked through extensive family, economic, educational and cultural connections.

This recognition goes back more than 150 years as exemplified by the binational vision of Niagara University’s founders, the Rev. John Lynch and the Rev. John Timon. They conceived NU as a binational institution whose mission was to educate priests serving the region from Buffalo to Toronto. Their legacy lives on today with 10 percent of our on-campus students holding Canadian citizenship and an additional 200-plus students participating in programs that are delivered in Canada.

The first years of the 21st century posed serious challenges to this binational region. Border crossing became more onerous with increased security after 9/11, including the requirement for a passport or enhanced driver’s license. International trade has been limited by the inadequate infrastructure of the four bridges crossing the Niagara River that, nevertheless, serve 13.4 million trucks and passenger vehicles each year. The Peace Bridge between Fort Erie and Buffalo is the third-busiest coast-to-coast crossing for trade. And of course, a recession and fluctuating currency values have impacted commerce.

Despite the obstacles, we must further develop our binational region, to a level of commerce and collaboration exceeding that of the past. Necessary are: improved infrastructure and more efficient border crossings, reduced red tape, increased cultural and educational collaboration and enhanced leadership development in support of economic development.

There is some good news on infrastructure. Major improvements are nearing completion at the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer is calling for more. Starting this summer, a series of improvements valued at $80 million will be undertaken at the Peace Bridge. Both will greatly enhance truck and passenger vehicle movement, improving the flow of goods and people while developing a growing logistics sector.

The importance of infrastructure development was underscored by Acting Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade Ken Hyatt last year when he said, “If we can’t deliver the goods to and from our borders, and within our borders, quickly and at the lowest possible cost, we can’t expect to meet our national goals for increasing our exports, or attracting foreign investment – or for boosting our economy and job growth.”

In other forward-looking transportation initiatives, leaders from Southern Ontario are pressing hard for GO-train commuter rail services to be extended from Toronto to Niagara Falls, Ont. Just across the Whirlpool Bridge in New York, the City of Niagara Falls is completing a new rail station.

If high-speed rail transportation becomes a reality in the United States, there will be exponential increases in cross-border travel and tourism growth for both countries.

Progress is also being made to reduce red tape. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (the United States, Canada, Australia, Mexico and a number of South Pacific countries) would decrease the U.S. trade deficit with China and increase trade with these other countries. President Obama is pushing this measure, which would make border crossings easier through “trusted traveler” programs.

Since the passage of NAFTA, which eliminated most tariffs between the United States and Canada, trade has increased but has also been hampered by post-9/11 border restrictions. While the highest levels of security must be maintained, we need ways to keep goods flowing across the borders, especially since 83.6 percent of U.S.-Canada trade takes place via surface modes of truck, rail and pipeline.

Procedures must be streamlined and customs data requirements must be harmonized, particularly through “single window” initiatives that would include a data-filing system compatible with each country’s computer network. Information sharing and best practices have been made possible through the Canada-U.S. Beyond the Border initiatives. These must continue. Implementation of the International Trade Data System should be accelerated.

Another promising development is that regional leaders are now recognizing the importance of collaboration. Groups such as Leadership Niagara in New York and Ontario are collaborating to develop new leaders who see the benefit of a binational perspective. The Chambers of Commerce on both sides of the border and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership are also working toward this goal.

On the education side, partnership programs between schools will pay huge dividends. As students become more cognizant of the problems that exist between the trading partners, they will be able to solve issues, and a mutual understanding will lead to better working international relationships. For example, NU has a strong partnership with Niagara College in Canada. Students can study at both institutions, following pathways set forth in well-established articulation agreements and, in some cases, receiving scholarship support from an endowed fund of over $1 million dedicated to that purpose at NU. In fact, Niagara College is one of our top transfer partners.

“Niagara College and Niagara University are more than just good neighbors across the river. We are strategic partners in providing educational opportunity and advancing our common aims,” said Niagara College President Dan Patterson.

Canadian students studying on our campus during the current school year delivered an estimated $4 million in tuition and fees into the region, not including expenditures for food and retail items. This figure is multiplied many times over by the number of students crossing the border to study at other schools in Western New York.

At our commencement this past week, Niagara University was proud to honor Heyman. We consider his visit to be emblematic of our commitment as an institution to the vision of our founding fathers: To bring to bear our resources as an institution of higher education to help develop the region from Buffalo to Toronto. We at NU pledge to do all we can to advance trade, and commerce and educational collaboration between our two great nations.

The Rev. James Maher is president of Niagara University. He holds a Doctor of Ministry and is considered an expert on issues relating to poverty. His doctoral research focused on worker development progress and corporate social responsibility at Nike-contracted factories in Vietnam.