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December 11, 2011

Can we Trust Uncle Sam on Border Easing?

Reuel S. Amdur

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Beyond the Border, the new program that involves the sharing of personal information between Canada and the US along with efforts to enhance cross-border commerce was announced by Stephen Harper and Barack Obama on December 7. It is not a treaty or a formal agreement-just a list of things proposed to be done and of pilot projects to be implemented.

The to-do list includes some things years in the future.  You can imagine what might get in the way of implementation.  By March 2015, duplicate baggage checks for Canadian airline passengers changing planes in the US headed for a second US destination are to be eliminated.  Both countries pledge to spend money during the next five years to improve border infrastructure to speed up traffic crossing.  But what if another recession hits?  There are a number of other measures listed, but there is no guarantee that all economic measures will actually be implemented.  Consider what has taken place with the North American Free Trade Agreement.  Remember softwood lumber and Buy-American?

Some of the measures may be implemented sooner rather than later, such as expansion of special quick passes for approved travelers at the border and for screening in airports. But this speed-up comes at a steep price.  There is to be integration of information about people wanting to enter or leave either country.  And police from one country will operate in the other.  Let’s talk first about the police.

How secure should we feel about having armed US cops operating on Canadian soil?  What happens when something goes wrong with the arrangement?  Policing the police is always a conundrum, but who will police American police acting on Canadian soil? 

And now to the matter of information.  The two countries are to share information about people wanting to enter one or the other country and about their departure.  As well, information about people expelled will be shared.  Our experience with information-sharing with the United States has not, to put it mildly, always been positive.

Take the case of Maher Arar.  To begin, the information Canada provided was seriously flawed, and the United States acted on it by sending him to Syria to be tortured.  That information is still rattling around in American filing cabinets and electronic data banks.  He continues to be barred from the US on the flimsiest grounds.  American officials showed their evidence to Stockwell Day, a right-wing Evangelical.  No one would accuse Day of being even mildly open-minded about a Muslim alleged to be a potential terrorist.  While Day was pledged to secrecy and therefore not able to reveal what he saw, even he was unimpressed by the dossier.

Then there is the case of Abousfian Abdelrazik.  Canada had its way with him in Sudan, where he was stranded, imprisoned, and tortured, with Canadian complicity.  The US put him on the UN terrorist list, which Canada honored by freezing all his assets and making it impossible for him to work.  That recently changed when a new UN official was appointed to consider appeals against being listed.  While she took him off, he is still on Uncle Sam’s list.

The lists are secret, and like Kafka’s hero, those listed do not know of what they are accused.  They may not even know that they are on a list, and they certainly do not know how to get off.  Would it be asking too much of the Beyond the Border program to make provision whereby people listed as undesirable could have a way of getting off such a list, a way of correcting faulty information about them?  Don’t hold your breath.

This new program will not even make it possible for Arar and Abdelrazik to get on an Air Canada plane and fly from one place in Canada to another, if the plane at some point flies over US air space.  Would it have been too much for Prime Minister Harper to insist that provision be made to allow all Canadian citizens to fly freely from one Canadian city to another?  Apparently it was, if the matter even occurred to him.

As for the economic aspects of this accord, the implementation of many of them remains uncertain.  American interests find ways of creating roadblocks, raising issues such as the mad cow disease outbreak.  That one gave American cattle ranchers an argument for keeping competing Canadian beef out.  Softwood lumber producers in the US hampered importation of Canadian softwood lumber by complaining about alleged unfair subsidies. 

Of course, the entire Beyond the Border scheme was concocted and adopted in the dark, away from the eyes of elected officials and public interest groups.  Is Stephen Harper selling our birthright for a mess of pottage, pottage that may well not even be there?

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