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February 24, 2011

Canada-US Security Perimeter: Whose Security?

Reuel S. Amdur

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There are active discussions taking place between Canada and Washington on a common security perimeter, or more precisely, a common security and economic perimeter.

Mexico is involved more peripherally.  US concerns with Mexico are related to large-scale illegal immigration and drug trafficking.  While illegal immigration and drug smuggling are also issues with Canada, trade is more important between our two countries than between the US and Mexico. 

Canada is seen as a potential security threat; seen as too liberal on immigration and on allowing rejected immigrants to move underground. Washington also thinks we are too soft on terrorist groups, in spite of convictions of those found guilty of plotting terrorism. They remember Ahmed Ressam, the so-called millennium bomber, but they forget the fact that the US had 9/11 hijackers living and training in their country. 

Yet, trade between Canada and the US is vital to both, and the post-9/11 thickening of the border seriously impeded that trade.

The discussions are highly secret, with the public kept deliberately in the dark, but one word that seems to be repeated when the security perimeter is mentioned by those who claim to be in the know is harmonization. 

Harmonization of immigration policy, refugee policy, customs, and security. 

There is talk of pre-clearance procedures at airports, with customs and immigration officials operating on each other’s territory.  Toronto International Airport, as an example, already has US immigration officials located there for pre-clearance of passengers.

The idea of harmonizing immigration and refugee policy is disturbing.  Ours is, in spite of Harper, still a more open policy on refugees, and we are actively promoting selective immigration, with many people coming from countries that are on Washington’s radar.

As far as security is concerned, we are already involved in NORAD and are paying around 10% of its operational costs.  As with the $16 billion or so for fighter jets, against whom are we defending ourselves and our American betters?  And should we be wary of American agents operating in Canada?  A number have arrests warrants out for them on a kidnapping charge in Italy.

There are already some pre-clearance measures in place to expedite border-crossing, both for freight and for travelers, and extending these would be good. 

So-called smart technologies involving such things as biometric screening are on the agenda as part of the cross-border and “beyond the border” security program.

However, harmonization in trade more broadly can be problematic.  We supposedly have free trade with the US, but Buy-American policies are alive and well.  Will the security perimeter mean an end to such policies by American states and municipalities?  We are not bargaining equal-to-equal with the behemoth. 

Efforts are taking place to harmonize standards.  The issue is that of the quality of the standards.  California’s automobile exhaust standards look pretty good, but North Carolina labor standards are another matter.  And will “harmonization” in some way open the door for Canadian water to moisten grapes in the thirsty Napa Valley?

There is another aspect of the US-Canada security perimeter idea that needs to be addressed; the treatment of Canadians by the Americans.  The Maher Arar case comes to mind.  The legal claim for redress has been settled to his disadvantage.  Essentially, his claim was rejected by the US courts on the basis of security considerations.  If we are to have common security, will it then be possible to reopen the case? 

Apart from that, there is the fact that Arar is unable to travel to the United States.  In fact, he is even unable to board an Air Canada flight from Ottawa to Windsor because the flight path goes over the United States.  In any negotiations with the United States to eliminate thick borders, Canada should at the very least get permission for Canadian airlines to fly Canadians from one Canadian destination to another, even if that means that US soil is under the flight path.  That principle should apply regardless of what the CIA thinks of the Canadians who are traveling.

The ability of a Canadian to fly from one place in his country to another without being subject to a possible veto by a foreign government is surely a concern that needs to be addressed in working out any security perimeter.  It should be a touchstone of national independence.  Can you imagine Harper even raising the issue?

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