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Americans ought to be more curious about Canada and our mutual issues

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Washington last Friday to talk with President Barack Obama about things one might expect to be discussion topics for leaders of countries who are each other’s largest trading partner and who share the wo

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Washington last Friday to talk with President Barack Obama about things one might expect to be discussion topics for leaders of countries who are each other’s largest trading partner and who share the world’s longest border (5,525 miles, including the part of Canada that borders Alaska): security, making the border more easily traversed by people and goods, oil, and more.

But like the introverted worker who extinguishes fires before they start or the neighbor who always lends a shovel or rake and is usually willing to drive the kids to the pool, this visit went nearly unnoticed in the United States, although NPR did run several minutes of the news conference the president and prime minister held. Even the “PBS NewsHour,” which often prides itself on its more extensive world view (and which used to feature a fair amount of Canadian news when Nova Scotia-born Robert MacNeil co-anchored the program), had nary a mention. Many of the questions fielded by Obama and Harper during the news conference rightly concerned the Egyptian chaos, although most U.S. news organizations focused on the president’s comments, with the only hint that something else was going on was the smidge of Canadian flag that peeked out over the president’s shoulder.

Of course, given Egypt’s pivotal role in the strategically important Middle East and the violence that is marking the uprising, it is right that people and news organizations pay a great deal of attention to the Egyptian situation. Still, it should be disturbing to anyone who depends on Canadian trade (including Minnesotans) to see such a huge lack of interest in Canada and in the issues discussed by the president and prime minister.

Because even though a lot of people still only think of beavers, maple syrup, Mounties, Labatt’s Blue, or hockey when they think of Canada, all Americans depend a lot more on Canada than they might want to realize.

For instance, much is being said about Egypt’s crucial role in controlling the oil-transporting Suez Canal. But it is Canada that exports the most petroleum to the United States. In November alone, Canada sent some 2,510,000 barrels of petroleum to the U.S. every day (up from 2,345,000 barrels in October). Mexico is our second largest foreign provider, followed by Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. One of the things Obama and Harper talked about was a highly controversial proposed $7 billion, 1,900-mile pipeline that would transport about 500,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta (which is just above Montana, FYI) to Texas.

And Canada’s importance to the United States isn’t just about oil. More than 8 million American jobs depend on Canadian trade, including more than 141,000 in Minnesota, which borders not one but two Canadian provinces (Ontario and Manitoba). Trade between Minnesota and Canada during the past three years has averaged about $16 billion per year. Canada is Minnesota’s top foreign customer and largest supplier of (yes, oil), along with natural gas and electricity.

As a long-time student of Canada who has done a fair amount of work with Canadian clients within the past two years and has subsequently become good friends with a number of Canadians, I find this lack of attention and interest in things Canadian all the more upsetting.

I daily read many Canadian newspapers and listen to Canadian newscasts. I always knew Canadians had a massive interest in the United States, but until I became a constant consumer of Canadian media, I never knew just how much they know about us, talk about us, think about us, question us, wonder what it is that makes us so “American.” It’s true, we have about 10 times Canada’s population and our economy is that much larger as well, so it makes sense that Canadians would train a close eye on us. Still, every day, in just about every major Canadian daily paper or national newscast, there will not only be many U.S. news stories but opinions and editorials about American issues. Canadians’ voices are not so much angry as perplexed as they ask why we are not more curious about them.

So while it’s vitally important to pay attention to the rest of the world, it’s past time to cast an eye north and learn more about Canada. It’s about a lot more than maple syrup and long-haired hockey players.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in Minneapolis.