A more secure border must suit Canada first
By JANET McFARLAND
Saturday, October 6, 2001
The most interesting thing about U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci's pitch for a North American security perimeter is that it contains none of the details that Canadians have most criticized about the idea.
Various Liberal cabinet ministers have flatly rejected the proposal, arguing Canada is not ready to abandon its sovereignty over its borders to simply adopt the U.S. immigration system. Yet in a meeting with The Globe and Mail this week, Mr. Cellucci described nothing that appears to overtly threaten Canada's sovereign right to set its own immigration and border policies.
His proposal is a tightening of various security measures at all external border points around Canada and the United States, which would then allow looser controls at the Canada-U.S. border.
His ideas deserve more consideration than they've received, because we are already seeing the harmful impact of far greater border security on the free flow of traffic across the Canada-U.S. border. More than $1-billion worth of goods crosses the border daily, 70 per cent of it by truck. According to the Ontario Trucking Association, that means one truck crosses every 2.5 seconds. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, numerous truckers and manufacturers -- including the major car companies -- have reported heavy losses as a result of the new border delays. It is in both countries' clear economic interests to prevent the border from becoming an iron curtain.
Mr. Cellucci argues these days that there is no need for Canada to adopt American immigration rules, nor to erase the existing border. Laws may remain different, he said, as long as there is a shared vigilance in security checks. His solution is more use of technology.
The idea is to spot known criminals and terrorists entering from third countries by using various sorts of identification tools, including fingerprints and retinal scans. There are now even computer programs that can scan facial features and check them against known criminals. This, he suggests, would make it harder for convicted criminals to travel under false identities. Certainly the creation of passports that are harder to counterfeit would also help achieve that goal.
Mr. Cellucci also suggests that better use of technology can save time and trouble at the internal border. Trucks from various manufacturing plants can be electronically secured and fitted with transponders, allowing border guards to quickly verify what's inside, and whether the vehicle stopped or was opened after leaving the factory. Trucks that pass the electronic controls could be waved through the border without long delays, he said.
Mr. Cellucci's suggestions may already be impossible, but not because of Canadian opposition. In Washington, all talk is about fortifying the U.S.-Canada border to the hilt. The Wall Street Journal says a new provision to beef up the border is expected to "sail through" Congress. Despite much bickering about other anti-terrorism proposals, there is virtual unanimity on a plan to add more immigration, customs and border patrol officers at the Canadian border.
The U.S. media is now filled with criticisms of the leaky Canadian border and our supposed propensity to harbour terrorists -- despite the fact the United States has admitted numerous terrorists itself. Indeed, Mr. Cellucci suggested vaguely that there has even been talk since Sept. 11 about requiring passports for Canadians and Americans at the border.
Mr. Cellucci's ideas would not create a perfect security system, and perhaps there is merit to the criticism this week by Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley, who labelled the plan a simplistic solution to a complex problem.
While there is nothing wrong with the idea of boosting security with high-tech monitoring, these nascent systems cannot be relied upon to create a complete web of safety within the perimeter. Many potentially dangerous immigrants may not be found in computer databases, and better checks may still not convince either government that citizens living within the perimeter are automatically safe to travel between the two countries.
As well, despite his assurances that Canada would not have to change its immigration system, there are issues of potential conflict. The United States, for example, often holds refugee claimants in detention pending a decision on their cases, and it is possible that pressure will fall on Canada to adopt this practice. It is also possible the U.S. will criticize Canada's willingness to admit visitors from countries the U.S. opposes. Cuba leaps to mind.
These matters should not be insurmountable. Security weaknesses can be improved. Canada could secure agreement up front to continue its current practices, or to make its own decisions on a case-by-case basis.
But, of course, this could only occur if the federal government were willing to actually talk to the United States to determine what may be possible.
At the end of the day, no system is worthwhile if it doesn't suit Canada's needs first and foremost. Mr. Cellucci's plan contains many security provisions that should be as reassuring to Canadians as they are to Americans. It deserves more debate, especially since no one is presenting a better alternative.