The Vital Connection: Reclaiming Great Lakes Economic Leadership in the Bi-National U.S.-Canadian Region

John C. Austin,
John C. Austin
John C. Austin Nonresident Senior Fellow - Brookings Metro

Britany Affolter-Caine, and Elaine Dezenski
Elaine Dezenski Senior Advisor at the Center on Economic and Financial Power - Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Chief Growth Officer - Blank Slate Technologies

March 24, 2008

The Great Lakes economic region, comprised of the U.S. states bordering the Great Lakes, the upper Mississippi and Ohio watersheds, and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec, has a storied economic history.

The waterways of the five Great Lakes—along with the Ohio, Mississippi, and St. Lawrence river systems—first connected the rich natural bounty of North America’s interior with the ocean and the rest of the world. Later, the conversion of abundant resources to processed agricultural and finished manufactured goods made the Great Lakes region an industrial colossus, and placed it at the center of U.S. and Canadian economic development. The area has served as the launching pad for new industries and innovations, birthing the oil, steel, auto, and aviation industries; leading the global “green” agricultural revolution; and boosting such recent technological “game-changers” as the Internet.

Unique to this relationship has been a largely invisible boundary, historically the longest unguarded border between two nations. Understanding their economic interdependence, the region was a first mover to open markets—from early reciprocity agreements to the U.S.-Canadian Auto Pact (1965), the U.S. Canadian Free Trade Agreement (1989), and the North American Free Trade Agreement (1994). The resulting interaction and free flows of people, capital, ideas, and goods across the border enabled the growth of great industries, gave rise to a strong blue-collar middle class, and created the largest bi-national economy on earth.