[Editor's note: This article was revised on October 23. The previous version mistakenly tied the North American Forum on Integration to the event sponsored by a different group called the North American Forum. The NAFI in fact denies any involvement with the event, and we regret the error.]
Stockwell Day may have been there, but his office isn't saying.
Donald Rumsfeld may have been there, too. But again, no one seems to want to talk about it.
Last month, a secret meeting called the North American Forum was held in Banff. The theme of the three-day event was "Continental Prosperity in the New Security Environment."
Dozens of powerful figures from across North America attended. Many of the delegates are rumoured to have arrived at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel by bus in the middle of the night.
It all sounds a bit like a conspiracy nut's black-helicopter fantasy, but the North American Forum is real and so was the meeting.
The delegates met from Sept. 12 to 14 under the joint chairmanship of Pedro Aspe, the former finance minister of Mexico; Peter Lougheed, the former premier of Alberta; and George Schultz, the former U.S. secretary of state.
A number of prominent names from North American business, government and military are listed as participants, including former Canadian cabinet minister Perrin Beatty, Canadian Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier and former U.S. secretary of defence James Schlesinger.
Topics included: "A Vision for North America: Issues and Options"; "Toward a North American Energy Strategy"; "Opportunities for Security Cooperation in North America"; "Demographic and Social Dimensions of North American Integration" and "Border Infrastructure and Continental Prosperity."
On Stockwell's sked?
Day is listed as an attendee and one of the keynote speakers, but Melisa Leclerc, a spokeswoman for Day, refused to discuss whether the minister attended the meeting.
"I've never confirmed to any media whether or not the minister was there," she said. "It's a private meeting and generally I don't confirm private meetings of the minister. I don't confirm whether he was there or not."
Rumsfeld was also listed as an attendee and speaker, but his status has been equally difficult to confirm.
To Mel Hurtig, the former publisher and the founder of the Council of Canadians, the meeting represents "the worst kind of bureaucratic fascism I've seen in Canada during my lifetime."
Hurtig, who obtained a draft agenda and list of participants for the event, said the meeting is part of a strategy to integrate Canada, the U.S. and Mexico over a number of years. Such an integration would give the U.S. access to Canadian energy and water, he said.
"Government and business are conspiring to integrate Canada with the United States," said Hurtig. "They're not answering questions about what went on [in Banff], they're not answering questions about where they get their funding."
It's true that the North American Forum wasn't exactly seeking publicity for its Rocky Mountain retreat. When the local paper, the Banff Crag & Canyon, asked a forum spokesman about the event, it was told that the attendees "have a right to a certain degree of privacy."
The paper reported that Forum spokesman John Larsen "would not confirm or deny that Rumsfeld or anyone else was in attendance. He said he did not know who paid for the forum."
The paper quoted Larsen as saying:
"People that are relatively senior in business...if they're going to come to these things and put their open and frank discussions on the table in order for those conversations to be as fruitful as possible they want to think that there's some [confidentiality].
"You can imagine that if this was all televised or open to public scrutiny, the nature of the conversations and ultimately what you would be able to do with those conversations and how far you might be able to advance the solutions around it would be different."
Larsen did not return calls from The Tyee this week.
The Banff meeting was the second annual meeting of the North American Forum. Last year, the group held a two-day, off-the-record session in Sonoma, California. The organization, which does not appear to have a website, tends to keep a low profile.
Still, the topics the Forum addressed do make a number of people on both sides of the 49th parallel uneasy. And while in Canada it's the left that tends to get upset, in the U.S. it's the far right that tends to rant about the issue.
To some, such as perennial presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan, North American integration means waves of Mexican immigrants crashing across the U.S. southern border. (To give you a bit of the flavour of the debate, Buchanan's new book is entitled State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America.)
One of the first websites to pick up on the Banff meeting was WorldNetDaily, where you can find a series of immigration-related stories under the heading INVASION USA, along with ads for T-shirts bearing pictures of Bill and Hillary Clinton and the words "Do Not Resuscitate."
Even the mainstream U.S. right appears to have some reservations about North American integration. The Bush administration's post 9-11 security concerns have led in many respects to tighter borders rather than greater integration.
Pro-business columnists such as Terence Corcoran and Andrew Coyne have lamented what they see as the death of the spirit of North American integration.
In March, Coyne wrote nostalgically of the days when it was "still possible to dream of a Multilateral Agreement on Investment, and the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a common economic space reaching 'from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego,' was just around the corner."
NAFTA, Coyne wrote in the National Post, is being threatened by America's security concerns, despite last year's Security and Prosperity Partnership agreement, which pledged greater military and economic co-operation among Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.
The U.S. government, says University of B.C. professor Michael Byers, is displaying something of a split personality on the question of North American integration.
On the one hand, the Bush administration supports initiatives such as the Security and Prosperity Partnership. At the same time, it is talking about fortifying the Canada-U.S. border.
"If you had a fully integrated Canada with the same immigration laws and the same anti-terrorism legislation and all that, you wouldn't need a fence or a secure border," said Byers. "You'd have a North American security perimeter."
Byers, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC, said he doesn't see anything particularly sinister in the secrecy surrounding the Banff meeting.
The Forum, he said, is "well organized and they're well funded...These are actors who we know about and who in many cases are very public about their views and their efforts."
But the move toward North American integration should still be taken seriously, he said.
"It's a project that's being advanced by people who have thought these things through...This is a major collaborative effort by a group of pretty smart people."
Tom Barrett is a contributing editor to The Tyee.
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