Cross-border companies join forces

The SAGE Summit gives US and Canadian businesses a unified voice in favour of streamlined trade
ESCHEWING THEIR PATCHWORK APPROACH of the past, leading cross-border trade organizations in the US and Canada have organized a united front in their efforts to reach the hearts and minds of governments and legislators.


The inaugural 2016 US-Canada SAGE Summit, which took place at Ohio State University’s Columbus campus in late June, featured delegates representing 60 leading cross-border business organizations as well as policy and political leaders from both countries. SAGE is an acronym for “strategies, advocacy, gateways, engagement,” the organization’s action pillars.


“This summit marked the first time that these organizations came together under one roof to chart a course for the future of the Canada-US relationship,” says Columbus-based Daniel Ujczo, a summit co-founder and an international trade lawyer at Dickinson Wright, a firm with offices in Canada and the US whose practice includes a significant focus on cross-border law and trade. “With a new government in power in Canada and American elections on the horizon, we needed to come up with a new way to manage this relationship.”


The timing was right. “The cross-border scene has been racking up a lot of losses, including the rejection of the Keystone Pipeline, the dispute over country-of-origin labelling, and the fight over who would pay for the Gordie Howe Memorial Bridge,” he says. “We definitely needed a new approach.”


The new Canadian government, it turns out, was a key catalyst for SAGE. “Trudeau’s visit to Washington in March not only changed the political tone, but also provided an opening for our initiative,” Ujczo says.


The summit culminated in the “Columbus Declaration,” which called on both governments to provide clarity and training regarding business visitor rules; to advance pending pre-clearance border legislation aimed at facilitating trade and strengthening border security; and to recommit to eliminating redundant regulations and achieving alignment. “Canada and the US have already agreed what the border should look like, so they need to pass the appropriate legislation,” Ujczo says.


The Summit quickly produced a tangible reaction. “Just two weeks after we came together, the US and Canadian governments, as well as the Mexican government, announced that they would call a stakeholder meeting on North American competitiveness,” Ujczo says. “We’re making it easy for them to reach out to us.”


Going forward, SAGE organizers will meet in Washington to set up a governance structure for the new organization, formulate the appropriate messaging and lay the groundwork for a website. “We want to give both Prime Minister Trudeau and the next US President the same package telling them what we as business people need from them,” says Joy Nott, the Toronto-based president and CEO of The Canadian Association of Importers & Exporters.<


Nott stresses that the presentation will cut a wide swath. “We’re trying to stay away from the niche stuff because we want to put forward material that reaches across industry sectors,” she says. “This having been said, if there are niche projects with high dollar values or that are capable of creating a lot of jobs, they could be included.”


David Olsen, the Toronto-based regional president of PNC Bank Canada, is optimistic that SAGE can provide the consistent message to government that has long eluded the broad range of stakeholders in the cross-border scenario. “Given the growing unpopularity of trade initiatives in the world, it’s much more difficult for those in favour of expanded trade to get the word out than it is for the naysayers,” he says. “Hopefully, coming up with a consistent message will make that challenge easier in the US-Canada context.”


SAGE representatives will also be speaking at the next meeting of the Council of State Governments and to various legislative groups in Canada from Saskatchewan to Québec. Ujczo has already worked on a similar initiative aimed at the Pacific Northwest Economic Region.


Kelly Johnston, Vice-President, Government Affairs at New Jersey-based Campbell Soup Co., imagines a US-Canada trade relationship that resembles the one existing in the EU. “SAGE is part of an effort to bring fruit to the image that [former US President] George W. Bush and [former Canadian Prime Minister] Paul Martin had of building an export powerhouse by breaking down regulatory and other barriers. In the EU, a truck can drive right through from Milan to Amsterdam, and we’d like to have a similar situation here.”


Ujczo says SAGE won’t be wasting any time. “We’ll be ready to go the day after the US election,” he says.