DETROIT — On the same day President Trump publicly criticized Canada for its dairy industry policies, several hundred academics, politicians, government officials, and industry leaders from the two countries gathered in Detroit to talk about shared goals and initiatives to foster growth in their regional economy.
Now in its third year, the Great Lakes Economic Forum isn’t designed to be a conference for politics, but for most speakers the pall of protectionism was difficult to ignore.
“I think most of the world is hoping the bark is worse than the bite on that front, but we can only hope because the bark is certainly very loud,” said Doug Porter, the chief economist with Montreal-based BMO Financial Group.
Mr. Porter was the first presenter at the two-day symposium, which is hosted by Council of the Great Lakes Region. The group represents the interests of eight U.S. states, including Ohio and Michigan, and two Canadian provinces that border the lakes.
Canada and the United States have long had a robust trading relationship. According to figures from BMO, from February, 2016, to February, 2017, the U.S. shipped goods worth $268.4 billion to Canada, while it imported goods worth $281.6 million from Canada.
Much of that activity occurs from within the Great Lakes region, which Mr. Porter said has the equivalent of nearly $6 trillion in annual GDP.
While previous meetings have focused on how local leaders in the two countries can work together, this year’s meeting was set against a backdrop of an American president for whom economic protectionism is a major theme.
Many of Tuesday’s speakers rejected those impulses, saying economies of border states and provinces need to be looked at collectively, not segmented.
“We do need to keep relatively open borders because trade is so important between the regions,” Mr. Porter said. “If we start running into protectionist forces between Canada and the U.S., that’s obviously going to make it that much more challenging for economic success.”
Some of the challenges presenters raised would seemingly be exacerbated by stricter borders.
“We need to fix business travel right now. That should be at the top of the list,” said Daniel Ujczo, a international trade and customs lawyer with Dickinson Wright PLLC. “It’s what every exporter in the Great Lakes region complains about. You ask them what their No. 1 issue is, ‘I can’t find people to fill jobs and the ones I do I can’t move between my operations.’ It is a huge challenge.”
Mr. Ujczo, who is based at the firm’s Columbus office, was one of the panelists for a session focusing on how small and medium-sized businesses can increase trade within the region.
Ohio Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor gave Tuesday evening’s keynote address on her work as the chair of an economic task force assembled by the Conference of Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers.
“What we too many times fail to recognize is that economic opportunities don’t necessarily see borders,” she said an interview prior to her speech. “They don’t see borders of states and they certainly aren’t going to see the border of one country to another.”
Ms. Taylor said it’s important regional leaders develop relationships so they can take on large issues, whether economic or environmental, together.
“The challenges that we face with regard to Lake Erie and the phosphorous levels, it’s not a one state solution, it’s not even a one country solution,” she said. “It’s a regional problem and it requires a regional solution.”
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