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AnalysisU.S., Canada harmonize perimeter security approach

Published 27 May 2011

No other two countries in the world have a larger volume of trade between them as do the United States and Canada; in the first eleven month of 2010, for example, that trade between the two countries reached $480 billion; that trade — and, especially, significant growth of that volume of trade — have been hampered by ever tighter security arrangements the United States has been implementing along the U.S.-Canada border since the 9/11 terrorist attacks; the main reason the United States has insisted on beefing up border security is that Canadian immigration and customs laws have been judged to be not up to what the United States would regard as acceptable standards; the U.S. message to Canada was thus straightforward: the higher the security walls around Canada, the lower the security wall between Canada and the United States; Canada’s prime minister Stephen Harper agrees, and Canada is now working with the United States on harmonizing perimeter security arrangements; some Canadians are unhappy, saying the deal will result in sacrificing cherished Canadian values and practices

No other two countries in the world have a larger volume of trade between them as do the United States and Canada. In the first eleven month of 2010, for example, that trade between the two countries reached $480 billion.

That trade — and, especially, significant growth of that volume of trade — have been hampered by ever tighter security arrangements the United States has been implementing along the U.S.-Canada border since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

We note, though, that not everyone has been impressed with the effectiveness of these security measures. On 1 February this, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a critical report about the Obama administration’s effort to secure the U.S.-Canada border, saying that of the 4,000-mile border, the administration has implemented has established an “acceptable level of security” for just thirty-two miles.

Still, even if not fully effective and even if not present along every single inch of the border, these security measures have had a chilling effect on trade. These arrangements have increased the costs for trade and travel. Edward Alden notes that both commercial truck and passenger car traffic to the United States fell after 9/11 and have never recovered. The weakness in car traffic is particularly striking, because historically a strong Canadian dollar sent shoppers flooding south looking for bargains. Even with the Canadian dollar now at parity with the greenback, that is no longer the case.

The main reason the United States has insisted on beefing up border security is that Canadian immigration and customs laws have been judged to be not up to what the United States would regard as acceptable standards.

The U.S. message to Canada was thus straightforward: the higher the security walls around Canada, the lower the security wall between Canada and the United States.

Alden offers a good summary of the perimeter approach

The idea behind perimeter security is that the two governments would cooperate intensively to keep potentially dangerous goods and travelers from entering North America. In turn, greater security from overseas threats would permit streamlining of the northern border inspection regime, which has raised costs for business and discouraged travelers from crossing the U.S.-Canada border. With both the U.S. and Canadian economies growing anemically and facing high unemployment, improving the cross-border business and travel environment has never been more urgent economically

Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, got the message. During a visit to the White House in early February, Harper and President Barack Obama issued a statement that commits the two countries to work toward setting up a “perimeter” approach to North American security, streamlining regulations on goods crossing the border between the two countries, integrating law enforcement, and co- operating on “critical infrastructure and cyber-security.”

 

“Better border management is key to our competitiveness, our job creating, and my goal of doubling U.S. exports,” Obama said at a White House news conference with Harper.

“It is in both our interests to ensure that our common border remains open and efficient,” Harper said at the press conference. “It is just as critical that it remain secure, and in the hands of the vigilant and the dedicated.”

The details of the perimeter security agreement are still sketchy, but they will include:

  • Setting common standards for screening incoming cargo before it leaves foreign ports
  • Improving border infrastructure
  • Deepening law enforcement cooperation
  • Creating an integrated entry-exit system for travelers — for Canada, this means adopting and rolling out a US-VISIT style biometric entry system
  • The two governments will also agree to share much more real time information to help in targeting incoming overseas travelers who should be blocked or deserve extra scrutiny

The left-leaning parties in Canada, the Liberals and the NDP, and Canadian privacy advocates oppose this “perimeter” approach the North American security. “This affects our sovereignty,” Michael Ignatieff, former leader of the opposition Liberal Party, told reporters. “Everybody wants to make it easier to get goods and services across that border and people across that border but not at the price of Canadian sovereignty on issues like intelligence, on issues like immigration.”

 

NDP leader Jack Layton said, “We think that there should be a thorough discussion here about the extent to which he may be compromising our sovereignty. We of course want to work with our friends in the U.S. on issues. But we don’t want to compromise our ability to set our own policies.”

The Council of Canadians has raised concerns about what could be in the perimeter security agreement, and the impacts it would have on civil liberties, privacy, immigration and refugee policies, and Canada’s sovereignty.

Canadians’ reactions to the perimeter security approach

The Council of Canadians offers a useful summary of what major Canadian papers say about the Obama-Harper approach: Since the Council is critical of the approach, the quotes selected tend to raise questions about the impact the approach would have on cherished Canadian values.

 

The Toronto Star wrote a day or two before the Canadian early May elections:

Harper said that if re-elected he will move forward with the “shared vision for perimeter security and economic competitiveness” that he signed with U.S. President Barack Obama on February 4. …If the Tories continue in government, they will push the U.S.-Canada Regulatory Cooperation Council to cut red tape on trade and other matters. But some fear Canadians’ privacy will be invaded because Ottawa will share too much of their personal information with Washington. Indeed, the Harper-Obama scheme rings Canada and the U.S. in a single security perimeter, boosting cooperation between Canadian and American police, border, and intelligence services. Because negotiations between Ottawa and Washington are still shrouded in secrecy, it’s unclear whether the accord could limit immigration to Canada. That’s because the U.S. has tighter controls on immigration than Canada.

Last December, the Globe and Mail reported that:

The Harper government is bracing for a backlash over a border security agreement it is negotiating with the United States, anticipating it will spark worries about eroding sovereignty and privacy rights, a document obtained by the Globe and Mail shows. The communications strategy for the perimeter security declaration anticipates criticism from civil rights groups and others such as Council of Canadians chairwoman Maude Barlow.

In early-February, the Toronto Star reported:

The confidential government document (prepared last fall on the perimeter security proposal) contains a list of “high risk” stakeholders — those in Canada who might raise strenuous objections to stepped-up Canada-U.S. security arrangements. Advocacy and civil rights groups such as the Council of Canadians, led by Maude Barlow, were expected to react negatively because of “privacy concerns”. The strategy paper suggested that cabinet ministers be made available to the media to counteract Barlow’s statements.

In mid-February, the Canadian Press reported that an Ipsos-Reid poll found that 91 per cent of Canadians say the negotiations (on perimeter security) should take place in public so that they can see what is on the table. Canadians want Harper to adopt a much more transparent approach to the negotiations which are being held in total secrecy.