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PEI Premier Robert Ghiz, left, talks with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick after the National Governors Association special session with Canadian premiers in Washington on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2010.Cliff Owen

The Vancouver Olympics and the hockey rivalry between Canada and the United States was the centre of attention in recent weeks. But off the ice, and mostly out of sight, we achieved a joint gold when premiers met with governors at the National Governors Association in Washington.

Their discussions on jobs and competitiveness, energy and the environment marked a new level in our engagement and underline the value and necessity for provincial involvement in management of the American relationship.

Personal relations between premiers and governors matter. Four of the last six presidents were governors. President Barack Obama served in the Illinois state legislature before his election to the U.S. Senate. Key portfolios in his cabinet are held by former governors, including Arizona's Janet Napolitano (Homeland Security), Washington's Gary Locke (Commerce), and Kansas's Kathleen Sebelius (Health and Human Services), who met with the premiers.

Most of our trade problems in the United States start locally: Ranchers in Montana who can't compete with Alberta's feedlot alley; timber lot owners in the south who want to curb Canadian lumber imports; Maine farmers who want PEI potatoes kept out of the U.S.

Propelled into Congress, these complaints turn into protectionist legislation. They take a variety of forms - country of origin labelling to outright regulations mandating "Buy America." Traditionally, we've relied on our embassy to find redress through the State Department and White House and, in recent years, by taking our case to Congress.

While Quebec had an office to promote tourism, Washington was until recently off-limits to the provinces because we felt we had to speak with one voice. But the American system works on different principles. What is important is that we be heard, using multiple voices to deliver the same message.

Just as the national government developed capacity and gradually assumed responsibility for foreign policy in the half-century after Confederation, so today the provincial governments have come into their own. There is now an acknowledgment of their constitutional responsibilities, if not appreciation of their role in trade and commerce, energy and the environment. The premiers' Washington meetings began with a dinner hosted by Ambassador Gary Doer. As Manitoba premier, Mr. Doer broke new ground in lobbying Congress on Devils Lake and reaching out to governors.

The American relationship has never been defined in classical foreign-policy terms. Resolving problems requires the involvement of different levels of government, with provinces increasingly taking the initiative.

Take the recently negotiated agreement on government procurement. At Council of the Federation meetings in Regina last August, the premiers proposed a reciprocity agreement with the states. In Washington, governors and premiers began working out the practical applications. Each of them understands the need to get more bang for their buck in an era of restraint.

All the while, they worked their case at what are now regular, regional meetings. The most vigorous of the regional associations is the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER). Driven by legislators in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Yukon, Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Alberta and now Saskatchewan, its success is based on finding practical solutions to real problems. Sustained by a permanent secretariat based in Seattle, its agenda is focused on results and it brings to the table the executive, legislators, business, labour and civil society.

Anticipating Olympic headaches at the border, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire and B.C.'s Gordon Campbell came up with the idea of the smart drivers' licence as an alternative to the passport at the land border. PNWER ran with it and convinced Homeland Security to regulate the change. Smart drivers' licences are now being rolled out by other provinces and border states.

States and provinces are incubators for pragmatic change. Keeping the Great Lakes waters clean and diversion-free has depended on action by the adjacent states and provinces. The Western Climate Initiative, involving four Canadian provinces and half a dozen American states, is already offering practical experience in cap and trade. So is the Pacific Coast Collaborative on green ports and smart grids, while Saskatchewan is collaborating with Montana and North Dakota on carbon sequestration.

In hockey, we need different lines. So it is with Canada-U.S. relations, where we need to use all of our elected talent playing at every level of government. Making the case with the administration on Capitol Hill and with states is a permanent campaign. It requires a thousand points of contact if we are to put the puck in the net for Canada.

Colin Robertson is a former diplomat and first head of the Advocacy Secretariat in Canada's Washington embassy.

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