Many states have close economic ties to Canada, but Minnesota’s connection north runs deeper.
Canadians sometimes joke that Minnesota is Canada’s “11th province” or its “southernmost province.”
Without doubt, there’s plenty that the two places have in common — bitterly cold winters, an affinity for hockey, and a reputation for unfailing politeness, for starters.
The relationship between Minnesota and Canada goes deeper than that, though: Across a 550-mile border, they share people, goods, natural resources, and Tim Horton’s franchises.
From the economy to political and cultural attitudes, the breadth, and depth, of Minnesota’s ties to our neighbors to the north are more significant than you might think.
Canada and Minnesota: It’s big business
These days, the United States and Canada are each other’s biggest customers: In 2015, $670 billion worth of goods and services were exchanged over the 5,500-mile border.
Many states have close economic ties to Canada — for 35, including Minnesota, Canada is their largest foreign trading partner — but Canada has an outsize impact on Minnesota, and Canadian businesses view Minnesota as an essential economic partner.
What does the economic relationship between the two look like? For starters, there’s roughly $19 billion in annual trade between Minnesota and Canada. That’s not as much as a state like New York, which did $30 billion worth of trade with Canada in 2015. But New York is roughly four times more populous than Minnesota, and the North Star State does much more business with Canada than do states of comparable size. Wisconsin had $11.5 billion of trade with Canada, by comparison.
Minnesota exported $4.4 billion worth of goods to Canada in 2015 — mostly automotive-related items, medical devices, and beverages — more than exports from the state to China and Mexico combined. Minnesota also exports natural resources: According to the office of the Canadian consul general in Minneapolis, 25 to 30 percent of taconite produced on the Iron Range goes to Canada.
Minnesota imported $8.7 billion worth of Canadian goods — mostly crude oil and natural gas. Minnesota relies on Canada for energy: It gets 75 percent of its crude oil from Canada, and a tenth of its power comes from hydropower plants in Manitoba.
According to the consul general in Minneapolis, Jamshed Merchant, Minnesota benefits from one of the most integrated cross-border economies in the world. He held up Cheerios as an example: “General Mills gets oats from Canada to produce Cheerios in Minnesota or Iowa that then get shipped back to Canada,” Merchant said. “We’ve developed this relationship that’s so integrated.”
The Canada-Minnesota Business Council, a nonprofit group that aims to cultivate cross-border business ties, estimates that 174,000 jobs in Minnesota depend on trade with Canada; per the government of Canada, Minnesota companies have provided critical investment for Canadian companies.
The flow of people and tourists over the border is also substantial: about 800,000 Canadians visit Minnesota every year, spending about $240 million.
Minnesota’s border with Canada is not the longest of any U.S. state — that would be Alaska's — but it might be the most complex.
Along Minnesota and Canada’s 550-mile border there are eight land crossings, the busiest of which are at International Falls and Grand Portage. The bulk of the border, east of the Lake of the Woods, is formed by the Rainy River and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
International Falls, Minnesota, near the Canadian border.
The Minnesota-Canada border has an aberration that adds a unique feature to the relationship: the so-called Northwest Angle, the piece of Minnesota that juts distinctively above the flat, east-west line that is the U.S.-Canada border from the Lake of the Woods to the Pacific Ocean.
The Angle, a 123-square-mile patch of land, sits on the Canadian side of the Lake of the Woods. It became a part of the United States when, in the early 19th century, American and British treaty negotiators agreed to make the 49th parallel the U.S.-Canada border, beginning at the northwesternmost point of the Lake of the Woods.
These days, about 150 Minnesotans live in this small patch of U.S. land, surrounded by three sides of water and a land border with Canada. To reach mainland Minnesota, schoolchildren and other commuters must clear customs — in a booth with a videoconference set-up to U.S. and Canadian customs officers — drive a few miles through Canada, then clear customs in the U.S.
In the 1990s, the Angle created a rarity in U.S.-Canada relations: border drama. Canada had long allowed fishermen staying in the Angle to fish in the Canadian part of the Lake of the Woods, but imposed on them high fees and other burdens.
Gradually, those anglers just began staying in Canadian resorts, depressing the Angle economy, which is largely based on outdoor recreation.
That prompted Seventh District Rep. Collin Peterson, who represents the Angle, to introduce legislation in Congress to allow Angle residents to vote to secede and become a part of Canada.
Border disputes aside, Minnesotans and Canadians share political attitudes to a large degree — Minnesotans’ politics may have more in common with Manitoba than, say, the states of the deep south.
Minnesotans cherish their independent streak, though the state has a liberal reputation, just as Canada does.
According to Charles Doran, the director of Canadian Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, “Canadians are like Minnesotans in terms of their politics. You could take a sample of opinion in Minnesota, and take a sample of opinion in Canada, and you’d find the political attitudes are pretty similar.”
It’s difficult to compare side-by-side polls of Canadians’ and Minnesotans’ attitudes on various topics — mostly because there aren’t many — but the politics of the two places have aligned in some important ways.
Take resettlement of refugees, for example. The new Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has earned headlines for his efforts to make Canada as welcoming as possible to refugees, particularly those fleeing the civil war in Syria.
Public mood in the U.S. on resettling Syrian refugees, on the other hand, has been decidedly more negative. Opinion polls show a majority of Americans disapprove of admitting Syrian refugees, a sentiment that has intensified with ISIS-inspired terror attacks in the U.S.
Minnesota, which has a tradition of settling people fleeing conflict in Africa and Southeast Asia, has been somewhat of an outlier. Last year, as governors across the country said they would not admit Syrians, Gov. Mark Dayton made a point of saying Minnesota should welcome them; DFL state legislators and officials wrote an open letter last November telling refugees that Minnesota is “happy to have you.”
According to Nelson Wiseman, director of the Canadian Studies program at the University of Toronto, it is important to remember that Canadian politics are centered much further to the left than those in the U.S., and that even areas of Minnesota that border Canada are likely to vote for much more conservative ideas than their northern neighbors.
Still, he said, Minnesota and neighboring Canadian provinces share some political DNA. In the 1930s, Saskatchewan had a Farmer-Labor party — now the mainstream New Democratic Party — founded about 14 years after Minnesota’s own Farmer-Labor party was.
Cultural, social ties
Economic interdependence, a shared border and some political similarities all represent practical ways in which Minnesotan and Canadian fortunes are intertwined.
What really makes people wax so fondly about the relationship, though, is that the people are similar, too — and they know each other pretty well.
Culturally and socially, there are a lot of parallels between Minnesotans and Canadians. For example: Experts listed the harsh weather, a rich tradition of outdoor recreation and the frontier-going prairie mentality as things that link the two places together.
According to Doran, who is from southern Minnesota, “Minnesotans have an identity with Canada that perhaps no other state has to the same degree.”
“There are just lots of commonalities,” he said. “People move back and forth, so there are family members on both sides of the border. I’d just say that Minnesota has, almost more than any other state, a personal relationship, a relationship in terms of individuals, with Canadians.”
Sometimes that bond is played up for diplomatic purposes: Before a visit last year, the governor-general of Canada, David Johnston, wrote a column in the Star Tribune extolling the special Minnesota-Canada relationship. Johnston, indeed, joked that Canadians call Minnesota “Canada’s 11th province,” and that Minnesota is a “home away from home” for Canadians.
“This is a vitally important state for Canada,” he wrote. “We have a shared border, shared waterways, and a similar climate and environment. We have close ties in energy, education, agriculture, and trade.”
Marc Bellemare, an associate professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, is from Montreal and is one of the roughly 12,000 Canadian-born individuals who now call Minnesota home. He said there is some diplomatic bluster in that kind of talk, but didn’t deny there was something to it.
“The Twin Cities is probably the place where I’ve lived in the world that is closest to Montreal,” Bellemare said. “It’s almost entirely identical to living in Montreal. It’s got very, very similar weather, similar size in terms of the metropolitan area, it’s got the same level of cultural amenities, the same love of hockey we have in Montreal.”
“This really felt like home immediately,” he said.
Merchant, who has served in Minneapolis as consul general for four years, echoed that sentiment, saying, “It’s very easy to feel at home in the Midwest.”
“My wife and I have found that Midwesterners in America are just amazingly friendly people,” he said. “People see Canadians as being overly polite — just kind of a Canadian habit. You kind of feel it here as well.”
Merchant says that in his time traveling the Upper Midwest, “You come across people who say, I’m Canadian, or my wife’s Canadian, or my grandfather came from Canada and settled here. Family ties are really quite deep here, it’s amazing how often you come across them.”
For some parts of Minnesota — Moorhead or East Grand Forks, for example — the closest city in which to catch a National Hockey League game isn’t in St. Paul, but in Winnipeg. For some Canadian students in the plains, Wiseman says, Minnesota is a more attractive destination than Toronto or Montreal for attending school because it’s closer to home. (Manitoba residents get special discounts if they attend Minnesota public universities through a reciprocity agreement.)
“Minnesotans,” Doran says, “have kind of a first-hand knowledge of their Canadian counterparts just across the border.”
“The fact is that lots of Minnesotans get up to the Lake of the Woods to go fishing and that’s how they get to many Canadians. Lots of Canadians who are in Minnesota, in various jobs, move back and forth in terms of business between Minneapolis and Toronto or Winnipeg,” he says.
“I think it all revolves around walleye.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Marc Bellemare's title, and which state has the longest border with Canada.