Birgit Matthiesen was working as a Canadian customs inspector when she struck up a friendship—and, later, a marriage—with a fellow agent, one who worked on the American side of the border. “We are,” she says, “the living example of the bilateral relationship.”
Now the couple lives in Burlington, Vermont, and Matthiesen has built a 35-year career in international trade, first as an economic policy assistant at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., then as special advisor to the president of the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, Canada’s largest trade and industry association. She now directs Canada-U.S. cross-border business affairs for Arent Fox, a Washington, DC, law firm and lobbying group.
But no matter her success or her longtime status as a U.S. citizen, Matthiesen cannot forget that, at heart, she is an immigrant in this country. “I appreciate the fact that that bureaucracy and that process approved my application, and I try every day to make sure that they don’t regret it,” she says.
For Matthiesen that means giving back financially, “as most immigrants and most foreign workers do,” she says. As chair of a cross-border business affairs group and as a volunteer advisor for the Vermont-Québec Enterprise Initiative (VQEI), Matthiesen helps businesses in her home state thrive by connecting them with Canadian goods and customers. “As an immigrant, I just felt a need to lend my voice and my experience,” she says.
It’s experience that’s proven invaluable, says Tom Torti, president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce. “The VQEI is, in large part, a result of Birgit seeing an opportunity to strengthen her home state’s relationship with her home country.”
Canada is America’s second-largest trade partner, eclipsed only by the European Union. More than $1.8 billion in goods and services and 380,000 people cross the border every day, a relationship that supports millions of jobs.
Nothing kills business like an executive team that can’t get to a meeting.
In Vermont, an estimated 18,900 jobs depend on trade and investment with Canada, according to the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service. Husky Injection Molding System, for example, is based in Ontario but employs 350 U.S. workers at a Vermont plant. Canadian bicycle apparel company Louis Garneau runs its U.S. operations out of Vermont and recently added an $8 million building and 30 more jobs in the state. Many more U.S. jobs are tucked inside American companies able to manufacture goods domestically by importing some of their components from Canada.
“More and more, a finished retail product made in Vermont, or made in Québec, uses each other’s best product line. While one may see a long line of trucks at the border heading into Vermont, you will also see a long line of trucks heading into Québec,” Matthiesen says. “Really, we make things together.”
Meanwhile, companies in Vermont significantly boost sales with Canadian marketing. Québec’s largest city of Montreal is 45 minutes by car from the Vermont border and home to 4.1 million people, more than six times the total population of Vermont.
For her part, Matthiesen wants immigration reform that helps keep the border from acting as a barrier—to sales people, to repairmen, to anyone doing business. “Nothing kills business like an executive team that can’t get to a meeting,” she says.