Gar Pardy: Canada will pay a steep price in border talks

From today’s Ottawa Citizen

Last February Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama signed a joint declaration Beyond the Border: A Shared Vision for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness. The declaration stated both countries intended to “pursue a perimeter approach to security” in order to “accelerate the legitimate flow of people, goods and services” and to do so in ways that would “support economic competitiveness, job creation, and prosperity.”

There was little public discussion of the ideas in the declaration at the time but in recent weeks there have been several supportive opinion pieces on the subject. For example, one former Canadian ambassador to the United States called it “the first, potentially major, bilateral initiative in more than two decades.”

For the most part these articles concentrate on the border issues which “frustrate rather than facilitate trade.” Largely missing from the public discussion is any understanding of the price that would be paid by Canadians to open wider border doors for Canadian trucks and services.

The declaration comes after 10 years of failed initiatives to remove a variety of border restraints and constraints imposed by the Americans in the aftermath of 9/11.

First there was the bilateral Shared Border Accords and then, with the inclusion of Mexico, the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP). In the midst of these partnership-based efforts the United States unilaterally announced in 2005 the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), which had the direct result of curtailing travel between the United States and the countries of the Western Hemisphere. The WHTI required all travellers, including Americans, to carry passports or other government-issued identification when entering the United States.

The Shared Vision declaration represents a dramatic and desperate change in strategy on the part of the government of Canada in seeking changes on the border.

Initiatives to improve access to the United States by Canadians, their goods and their services, foundered on continuing American security concerns. While Canadians and Mexicans argued that prosperity was dependent on freeing the border, American responses were always coloured by and filtered through the prism of national security.

Throughout the decade hardly a year passed without some senior official reminding Americans of the threat Canada represented to the United States. Recently, Janet Napolitano, the American homeland security secretary spoke of the need to treat the Canadian border much the same as that with Mexico. She wanted “a real border” in the north. Since she is from Arizona, no doubt “real” in her mind includes a lot more guns, walls and continuing self-delusions.

Subsequently, the American Government Accountability Office (GAO) also weighed in and complained the threats on the Canadian border were much higher than those on the Mexican. The American commissioner for customs and border protection, earlier this year went even further when he testified before Congress there are more cases “where people who are suspected of alliances with terrorist organizations, or have had a terrorist suspicion in their background — we see more people crossing over from Canada than we have from Mexico.”

The Shared Vision declaration represents a dramatic and desperate change in strategy on the part of the government of Canada in seeking changes on the border.

In the earlier post-9/11 initiatives, security was part of the package but was presented as a needed element for both governments. Increased security co-operation and integration was justified on its own merits. Shared Vision, on the other hand, includes security measures as a trade-off by Canada in order to buy American co-operation on border issues.

The essence of the security measures in the Shared Vision declaration requires the transfer of information to the United States on, potentially, millions of people, most of whom would be Canadian citizens. Officials with the Canadian Shared Vision working group negotiating with the Americans, in briefing interested Canadians this summer, were frank in declaring that increased Canadian co-operation on security was the price to be paid for the removal of border restraints and constraints. They were equally frank in stating that the privacy rights of Canadians could be affected in paying that price.

While these officials noted that the Canadian government had established “red lines” on privacy matters over which it would not cross, there was no confirmation that existing Canadian laws on privacy would not be changed. Following an Aug. 15 meeting in Winnipeg with Napolitano, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews mused to the press “How do we share information in an appropriate fashion in order to ensure that security interests are met and yet that it doesn’t thicken the border?” While the roles of privacy commissioners in both countries were discussed, Napolitano laconically commented that “privacy issues between the United States and Canada are not nearly as great as is suggested.”

The negotiations have now reached the point where it was leaked this past weekend that an agreement had been reached on an implementation action plan for almost 40 initiatives. There is no confirmation of this, as earlier Toews revealed Harper and Obama will meet early this fall on the Shared Vision discussions. Toews indicated that the negotiators needed “further directions” on the Action Plan.

The leak may be nothing more than a crass attempt by the government to surround the Shared Vision initiative with the memories of 9/11.

President Obama is already in re-election mode and it is a certainty that he will concede nothing to Canada on the border without large and dangerous concessions from Canada on security. Even a partially assembled presidential bus in Canada has become part of the rubbish on the presidential election trail.

The protection of privacy is the subtly acknowledged elephant in the room in these discussions. In the past few years there have been two commissions of inquiry on cases in which the privacy rights of Canadians were violated by the sharing of information with the United States. The men affected became guests of nasty regimes with life-changing consequences for them.

Both the Auditor General and the Privacy Commissioner have added their voices on the need for greater privacy protections. This government and previous ones have ignored recommendations for changes and have been reluctant to improve existing protections by updating the out-of-date Privacy Act of 1983.

If Canadians are not vigilant they may soon discover that the Americans have more control over their privacy rights than we do at home.


Gar Pardy is a former member of the foreign service who worked on American-Canadian issues in both Washington and Ottawa. A background paper on the issues discussed in this article can be found on the website of the Rideau Institute at


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