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Thinking North America

It was the Spanish part of the invention of America that liberated Western man from the fetters of a prison-like conception of his physical world, and it was the English part that liberated him from subordination to a Europe-centred conception of his historical world. In these two great liberations lies the hidden and true significance of American history.

— Edmundo O’Gorman, The Invention of America1

by Philip Resnick

What exactly does it mean to be a North American? Europeans have been engaged in a long-running debate about the meaning and nature of Europe, not only in the last 50 or 60 years with the emergence of the European Union but for many centuries before. Does it make sense to engage similarly with the question of North America’s identity?

Globalization has spawned a series of continental economic blocs. The European Economic Community, from which the European Union has evolved, was the first to emerge. It has been followed by the ASEAN grouping in Southeast Asia; the Canada–U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA), subsequently extended to Mexico through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); and Mercosur in the southern cone of South America.

The FTA and NAFTA have brought in their wake a strengthening of economic integration within North America. To be sure, American investment in both Canada and Mexico goes back to the second half of the 19th century. But capital flows – in some cases into as well as out of the United States – have grown by leaps and bounds over the past two decades. The movement of population, both across the U.S.’s border with Canada and much more strikingly across its border with Mexico, has catapulted dramatically. In the Canadian case, the main original influx of settlers on the English Canadian side came from inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies fleeing the American Revolution. Subsequently, the balance of population exchange has tended to favour the United States over Canada, but with significant numbers moving in each direction. In the Mexican case, growing migration to the United States, especially in recent decades, has helped fuel American economic prosperity while simultaneously provoking a polarizing debate about the consequences of that migration for American national identity.

At the same time, 9/11 and its aftermath have raised questions of security to a continent-wide level – as manifested, for example, in the Security and Prosperity Partnership first proposed by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives in 2004 – while simultaneously provoking vigorous opposition from those concerned about both civil liberties and national sovereignty. Political leaders have paid greater symbolic attention to North America, with three-way summits and bilateral exchanges of visits (e.g., between Canadian and Mexican heads of government) happening far more frequently than before. This suggests the need to take North America seriously as a subject of reflection – and not only from the economic or security point of view.

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About the Author

Philip Resnick
Philip Resnick is Professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and a member of the Inroads editorial board.


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