Sam Adams and Gregor Robertson
Ever since Vancouver won the bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics, there has been a strong effort to market the event as “Canada’s Games.” It’s only natural, of course: the federal government wants to use the Olympics to enhance our national identity, and VANOC wants to gain a national scope to raise the commercial value of Olympic sponsorships.
But still, when international visitors get their first glimpses of Vancouver as they pass the stunning Haida and Coast Salish art at YVR’s international terminal, when they catch their first whiff of ocean air outside the arrivals doors, when the SkyTrain crests that first ridge on the trip downtown, revealing the dramatic cut of the North Shore mountains, is it really Canada our guests will see?
The centre of Canada, after all – not just geographically but also in terms of culture, commerce, industry and politics – is far from here. Vancouver has much more in common, on all those fronts, with our neighbours in Seattle and Portland than we do with our counterparts in Calgary and Montreal. And there’s little doubt that, as far as the Olympics is concerned, Seattle has much more to gain than Saskatoon – or even Kelowna.
That is why there’s an equally strong effort, on the part of many people in the Pacific northwest, to claim these 2010 Games as their own and to use the 16-day event as a springboard for advancing what has, to this point, been a rather abstract notion of cross-border regional unity. That notion is called Cascadia.
A Dream is Born
Cascadia is a dream many decades in the making, with boundaries that differ according to who you ask. The most common conception sees a region stretching south from B.C.’s border with Alaska through Washington and Oregon and into northern California, with the stunning coastal landscape, rich biological diversity and appealing climate as its defining characteristics. But it’s not just about surface commonalities; on a sociological and economic level too, Cascadia is deeply interconnected. Proponents of the idea maintain that the region can’t fully achieve its potential, be it ecological conservation, a strong cultural identity or global economic competitiveness, unless we somehow learn to work together.
Geologists have been using the term Cascadia to describe the region for more than 30 years, but it was arguably in the early 1980s that the term got its first popular exposure, according to Don Alper, who has been the director of Canadian-American Studies at Western Washington University for 14 years. Around this time, a concept called bio-regionalism was taking hold in the environmental movement, an idea for sustainable development that encouraged each community to know and respect its own local ecosystem. Cascadia was the name used to describe the major Pacific northwest region.
(Cascadian separatism, an idea embellished in the 1975 science fiction novel Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach, is another idea that has come up periodically in the last two decades. It has been continued through various fringe political movements, such as the Cascadian National Party, founded in 2001.)
In the early 1990s, an economics angle was added to the Cascadia dream, Alper says, notably with the founding of the Cascadia Project in Seattle. The mission of the project was to accelerate economic growth in the region by removing barriers for travel and trade between jurisdictions. In the early 1990s, the founders of the Cascadia Project and a Washington state congressman named John Miller made an attempt to set up a kind of forum that would give the Washington and B.C. governments stronger ties. But they were not particularly successful in inspiring B.C.’s then NDP government, Alper says: “There was a bit of suspicion that this was another one of those American ideas that presumed that the U.S. knew what was best for Canada.”
The ’90s were years of growing trade between Canada and the U.S. This was accelerated by the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed in 1994, which brought down more and more tariffs and other trade barriers over the following years. People were beginning to imagine that the U.S. and Canada might achieve a near-borderless relationship, Alper says. Between 1990 and 2000, the value of products the U.S. imported from Canada rose by 153 per cent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
But then 9/11 happened. Trade and travel both suffered severe setbacks, as security became the overarching U.S. priority. The value of Canadian imports to the U.S. fell by nine per cent between 2000 and 2002 and wouldn’t exceed 2000 levels again until 2004. Add in a whole series of smaller events – the salmon wars of the late ’90s, a war of words and escalating tariffs in the lumber trade – and the idea of Cascadian fraternity has at times seemed increasingly fanciful.
The Tourism Trap
Perhaps no sector of the B.C. economy was harder hit by the “thickening” of the U.S.-Canada border (to use the current parlance) than tourism. The number of U.S. visitors to the province dropped by 35 per cent between 2001 and 2008, according to Tourism BC. And while some of that is related to the rising cost of gasoline and a strengthening loonie, the new security regime has forced both B.C. and its southern neighbours to rethink their approach to tourism – and redouble their efforts for co-operation.
The Olympics is expected to drive up B.C.’s tourism revenues by an estimated $800 million in 2010, according to forecasts produced by Central 1 Credit Union, and many in B.C.’s tourism sector expect exposure from the event to be a long-term boost for the sector. And the impact will be seen on both sides of the border. Washington State Tourism has been marketing the state as a destination for travellers heading to or from the Games, setting up a dedicated website and distributing decks of cards with information about trips within Washington. There’s increasing interest within tourism circles to market the West Coast regionally instead of each jurisdiction doing its own thing, says Ian Burkheimer, who manages tourism projects for the Seattle-based Pacific NorthWest Economic Region (PNWER), a non-partisan government and business organization that promotes economic integration.
“That will probably be one of the legacies of these Games, and the current economic situation: in a way, it’s torn down some walls,” Burkheimer says. He explains that when money is tight for both tourism promoters and travellers, it makes more sense to target tourists closer to home and to pool resources when marketing outside the country.
PNWER is working to organize a regular summit of tourism leaders in Cascadia to talk about joint marketing efforts after the Games, Burkheimer says, along the lines of what local associations such as Tourism Vancouver and Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau have been doing for many years. In 2007, for instance, the two organizations agreed to look into the possibility of their respective cities co-hosting major events in the future, such as a Summer Olympics or a soccer World Cup. New tourism products are also being proposed through PNWER, such as food and wine tours through B.C. and Washington and a Eurail-like pass that will let travellers use the West Coast’s different ferry systems more easily.
Opening the Corridor
Bruce Agnew, as one of the founders of the Cascadia Project back in 1993 (now called the Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center for Regional Development), has been at the centre of the push for Cascadian economic integration. These days he’s focused on transportation above all else. The goal of the centre is to promote joint investment in improving the “Cascadia corridor,” particularly the links between our Pacific ports and the rest of the continent.
“Post-Olympics, [B.C. leaders] are looking at making Vancouver a gateway to North America, not just Canada,” Agnew says, a concept that challenges some conventional thinking for U.S. transportation planners. U.S. port authorities, on the other hand, “tend to look at Prince Rupert and Vancouver as competitors, and so are wary of using U.S. money to improve freight mobility to Vancouver ports. We take just the opposite view.”
The eternal problem with the border is that it is national territory, Agnew explains; no matter how much regional leaders may want to improve logistics and regulations, nothing happens without federal say-so. One example is float planes. There have been talks for eight years about getting a float-plane service between the Vancouver and Seattle harbours, Agnew explains, but the fee that the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) would charge to process travellers is too large for such a venture to succeed.
The provincial, state and municipal leaders in the region also have vested interests close to home, Agnew says, and few have the vision to take on projects that extend outside their borders. Part of the success of organizations such as the Cascadia Center and PNWER is that they have created a framework where the region’s leaders can connect with each other and work out common goals. But the process of building trust and forming cross-border relationships is often slow.
“Integration of transportation has been hit and miss in the last 15 years, but we’ve enjoyed an upsurge in the last three or four years,” Agnew says. The next step is to institutionalize these partnerships, he says, to get leaders to meet regularly and to create more organizations to deal with specific cross-border issues: “So much more could be done.”
Back on Track
A TRAIN APART: High-speed rail will play an increasingly important role in how Casacadians interact, at least if prponents such as Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson have their way. But it will take serious federal, provincial and state funds to make it happen.
No other recent project demonstrates the challenges of making cross-border progress as well as the addition of a second daily Amtrak passenger train between Seattle and Vancouver, which went into service on Aug. 19 of last year. Proponents of the plan estimate that it will bring an extra 50,000 passengers a year to Vancouver and generate an extra $13 million in economic activity in the first year alone. B.C. invested $3 million to upgrade the railway north of the border to allow it to happen.
But despite the support of a wide range of local leaders and business associations, the train almost didn’t leave the station. The main obstacle was a fee of $1,500 per day that the CBSA wanted to charge to cover the expense of processing the extra passengers, a fee that would have ruined the plan’s viability.
The situation was ridiculed in the media, with proponents fuming that such a small issue could stymie a project with such economic potential. The mayors of Vancouver, Seattle and Portland lobbied for a solution, and eventually Canada’s public safety ministry agreed to waive the border-inspection fee between August 2009 and the end of the Olympics. After that, the federal government will review whether ignoring the fee is worth it long-term.
According to Bruce Agnew, if the regions themselves had more flexibility to work out their own cross-border issues, rather than depending on distant federal agencies, disputes like this would be far less likely. “This cost-recovery issue with the second train should have been a non-starter,” he says. “The people on the train would spend more in GST than it costs to pay the [CBSA] salaries.”
To get even more trains on the existing tracks between Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, and get them running faster, B.C. needs to make almost $40 million in track improvements and replace the aging New Westminster rail bridge, Agnew says.
Another proposal in the dreaming stage is to one day build a new rail line for next-generation high-speed trains, which could take passengers from downtown Vancouver to downtown Seattle in about three hours – about an hour faster than the current trains. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson signed a memorandum of understanding with the mayors of Seattle and Portland supporting a high-speed line last spring. He also joined a promotional train trip between Seattle and Portland to endorse Washington and Oregon’s bid for a piece of a US$8-billion fund from the U.S. government for high-speed-rail development.
Of course, this would require B.C. to invest in a new rail line between Vancouver and the border. “That’s probably beyond our lifetime,” Agnew says. “But there’s the political framework now to discuss issues like that.”
Friends in High Places
Despite problems with the border and competing bureaucracies, Cascadians have managed to co-operate more effectively than almost any other multinational region in North America, thanks largely to the public-private organizations on both sides lobbying for change. A good example is the story about how a coalition of West Coast politicians, business leaders and lobbyists got approval from the U.S. federal government for enhanced drivers licences, which can be accepted in lieu of passports at the border.
The idea came up around 2005, when the Washington and B.C. governments were discussing what could be done to ease the impact of the passport requirement at the border in time for the Olympics, recalls John Van Dongen, B.C. MLA for Abbotsford South. Van Dongen has been representing B.C. at PNWER since 2005, when he was made B.C.’s minister of state for intergovernmental relations, and served as president of the group in 2008. Pushing for the legislation was a four-year project, he says: “There were very well-placed people in governments on both sides of the border, very sincere and credible and professional people, who said it would never happen.”
A big reason why the initiative came through is that B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell and Washington State Governor Chris Gregoire have arguably the closest relationship of any Canadian premier and U.S. governor, regularly participating in joint cabinet meetings to discuss cross-border issues. Both leaders, as well as a large group of business interests associated with PNWER, supported the project. In 2006 proponents managed to get Canada’s public safety minister Stockwell Day and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff together at a PNWER conference in Edmonton. That’s when things really started happening, Van Dongen says. Enhanced drivers licences were approved by the U.S. federal government in March 2007 and are now available in four provinces and four states.
“It will go down as a textbook example of cross-border, regional, non-partisan co-operation,” says Van Dongen.
Don Alper, from the University of Western Washington, says there’s a culture in the West Coast of wanting to fix our own problems our own way, without the interference of national governments, and this came out in the campaign for enhanced licences.
“They just kept pushing, pushing, pushing,” he says. “I didn’t think it would work, but it did. I think that’s fairly typical out here . . . this is one of the factors that makes Cascadia Cascadia: there’s a kind of pragmatism.”
A Hidden Culture
While it might be easy to accept that Cascadians share a distinct ecosystem and economy, whether or not we share a distinct culture is a trickier question. But there is something unique about living in the West Coast, something that is perhaps most clearly seen in our major cities.
Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, in particular, have strong ties to one another and are known for having created a high quality of life, says Larry Beasley, an international urban design consultant who served as the City of Vancouver’s co-director of planning from 1994 to 2006. “While cities are in competitive situations in national terms, we’ve said, ‘Well, maybe we’re not that,’” he says. “We’re searching for our own identities and reaching out beyond our countries.”
The three cities are distinct in that they aren’t really leaders in any traditional sphere of power, Beasley says: not in finance, industry nor politics. This has freed them – or perhaps forced them – to choose a different character, and historically this character has been inspired by the environment. Importantly, the process our cities have experienced to build their own identities has been co-operative, Beasley says, with each city learning from the others. Vancouver, for example, looks to Portland to learn about streetcars, whereas Seattle is looking at Vancouver to learn about highrise downtown housing.
But perhaps the most valuable lessons that have come out of the relationship have been about how to design sustainable and livable communities. This will likely give the region a competitive edge as the global economy comes to rely more and more on service- oriented work, Beasley says, by drawing valuable creative professionals from around the world. “These people can be anywhere they want to be, and they go to places of quality,” he says. “If you look at Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, we are places of quality, and we present ourselves that way; that’s our brand.”
Douglas Todd, spirituality columnist with the Vancouver Sun and author of the 2008 book Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia, is convinced that Cascadia represents a distinct North American culture – although few of us realize it. Cascadians are individualists, perhaps more than anything, he says, shunning large institutions. A smaller proportion of people in Cascadia belong to organized religions, for instance, than in any other region in North America. (We also tend to have higher rates of self-employment, and more of our economy is driven by small business.) “There’s a real live-and-let-live individualism here, which says everybody’s responsible for themselves,” Todd says. “It’s got a good side, and it’s got a down side as well.”
On one hand, this attitude has allowed Cascadians to be extraordinarily tolerant of immigrants and diverse cultures. However, it tends to discourage us from forming strong communities and acknowledging a shared culture. While academics, for instance, are quite comfortable talking about Cascadia as an important region, few residents of the region will actually identify themselves as Cascadians. But Todd insists that it’s critical for this region to have a sense of its identity, both for immigrants trying to integrate into a new society and for longtime residents trying to differentiate themselves from an increasingly homogeneous global commercial culture.
Whether Cascadians will ever come to recognize their distinct identity in a significant way – and whether a major world event such as the Olympic Games will make a difference – is difficult to tell. But in some ways, to adopt a little bit of Cascadian pragmatism, what we think of ourselves does not matter as much as what we do with ourselves. People in Cascadia are highly optimistic that their own actions can change their lives and the world around them, Todd says; they strongly believe they are capable of determining their own destiny.
“That’s why my book is called The Elusive Utopia; there’s a sense that people come here and they want to start something new,” he says. “The future is a very important part of the culture: what we are going to create that has never been seen before.”
But that raises the question: Can this individualistic ambition, so prevalent in the region, ever be focused in a collective, co-operative direction? Or will our individualism in fact prevent us from working together? There’s a difference between a region of like-minded people all engaged in their own business and a region that acts and grows with common purpose. It is that will to act as a community – on the part of politicians, business people and citizen groups – that might finally transform Cascadia into something more than a name on some unofficial map.