I recently reviewed three books on North American affairs, two on Canada-US, the other one on Canada-Mexico relations:
- “Doing the Continental: A New North American Relationship” (Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press, 2010) was written by David Dyment, an Ottawa-based academic, with a foreword by Bob Rae, currently interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
- “Big Picture Realities: Canada and Mexico at the Crossroads” (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008) is edited by Daniel Drache, a specialist in global trade governance and North American integration, who brought together for this book a set of leading experts on Canada and Mexico.
- “Uncle Sam and Us: Globalization, Neoconservatism, and the Canadian State” (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2002) was written by Stephen Clarkson, one of Canada’s pre-eminent political scientists.
Part of this review was to assess these authors’ views on the concept of “North American education.” Perhaps not surprisingly – while there are many calls for an integrated approach to education amongst Canadian provinces and Mexican and US states – the reality is that such a system does not exist. Each sub-federal jurisdiction creates its own rules and regulations related to formal education, which are not always aligned with those in other provinces and states, even as part of the same country.
In the Introduction to “Big Picture Realities,” Daniel Drache argues that “leading, pace-setting institutions such as the labour market, education, and health systems are being required to change and adapt to the new power dynamics” in North America. He also makes a case that “these forceful expressions of national interest and domestic priorities have reappeared as the new authoritative agenda-setting priorities for all three signatories” of NAFTA (Canada, the United States, and Mexico). The articles in Drache’s book do not substantiate however the assertion that education is one of those leading, agenda-setting sectors for the North American nations, contributing to closer alignment of continental processes.
A 2007 Strategic Council poll indicates that education is not one of the most important concerns for Canadians (health care and the environment are) and provides further evidence that it is not a key area of international collaboration either. Similarly, education (post-secondary, at least) doesn’t seem to be high on the list of national priorities of the peoples of Mexico and the United States. Tri-lateral discussions, such as those at the North American leaders’ Cancun summit in 2006, referred to education in passing, touching on joint research and specific teaching initiatives, at a high level. Duncan Wood (“Big Picture Realities”) points out that education is one of those sectors that “would benefit from a less macro, and more area-specific, approach.” While acknowledging that harmonization of educational systems is an unrealistic proposition in the foreseeable future, he recommends concrete collaboration initiatives between Canadian provinces and US and Mexican states, universities and colleges, and professional organizations in this area.
Stephen Clarkson highlights the distinction, in the Canadian system, between education and research. While the former falls entirely within the provinces’ authority, responsibility for research is shared between the provinces and the federal government. Authorities at the federal level have “paid attention to promoting science and technology since the Dominion’s early days” but “[have] long had an ambivalent attitude to [the promotion of education].” Unlike the United States (with its US Department of Education) or Mexico (with its Secretariat of Public Education), Canada doesn’t have a federal department regulating educational policies and programs. This contributes to a situation in which establishing and consolidating education-related initiatives in North America is a very challenging endeavour.
In any case, David Dyment makes a strong and compelling case that “continentalism is a force of nature that we have to be wary of and tame for our national [Canadian] interests.” In other words, while many sectors (including education) may present the potential for closer collaboration and deeper integration between Canada and its North American neighbours, Canada should only pursue such as line of action when it serves its strategic objectives, not for integration’s sake. The author also points out that “by placing Mexico centrally in our relations with the US, we are not achieving the benefits of multilateralism.”
These positions are consistent with the evolutions of Canada-US and Canada-Mexico relations in recent decades, including interactions and initiatives in the area of education. While still distinct from their US counterparts, Canadian higher education structures, processes, and standards are similar with those south of the border. At the same time, differences are significant between Canada/US and post-secondary realities in Mexico. Overall, just like politics, all education is “local” in North America – understanding realities in this area means understanding national, regional, and community-level contexts.
Students and parents in search of a university for undergraduate or graduate studies should study carefully all the factors involved in a decision, as contexts vary widely from country to country and from city to city. They can also consider working with experienced educational consultants, who can guide them through the maze of considerations and decisions, particularly when they explore different options in different parts of the continent.