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Vehicles crossing the border tunnel from Windsor, Ont., stop at U.S. custom booths in downtown Detroit in this photo from March 1, 2013. (REBECCA COOK/REUTERS)
Vehicles crossing the border tunnel from Windsor, Ont., stop at U.S. custom booths in downtown Detroit in this photo from March 1, 2013. (REBECCA COOK/REUTERS)

Colin Robertson

A border-crossing fee is exactly what the U.S. and Canada do not need Add to ...

Margaret Atwood once remarked that if the national mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia.

But is paranoia towards the United States justified? Not usually. Take a closer look at reports of a new border-crossing fee that are creating a lot of noise.

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This is not protectionism. Rather, the across-the-board budget cuts mandated by U.S. laws (the “sequester”) have obliged all departments to become more creative in funding. Within the 2014 Department of Homeland Security budget is a recommendation to conduct a study on whether to collect a fee from pedestrians and vehicles crossing between the United States and Canada by land.

The new revenue, Secretary Janet Napolitano told Congress, would pay for the hiring of new customs and border officers. There might be something for us in the scheme as without new staff, the chances of getting pre-clearance at Toronto’s Island Airport are slim. But the first call will be to staff the southern border because enforcement will be a key part of any new immigration deal.

Unlike budgets in Canada, however, what goes into the congressional legislative process bears little resemblance to what comes out the other end. This is why the U.S. legislative process has famously been compared to sausage-making.

The checks and balances inherent in the U.S. system mean that regional and sectoral interests can also be counted on to block such initiatives.

A new toll “is the absolute last thing we should be doing if we want to grow the economies of Western New York and the U.S.,” warned Buffalo Congressman Brian Higgins. “To slap travellers here with onerous fees is a bad idea,” argued New York Senator Chuck Schumer. “We don't need a study to tell us that."

There is also the practical problem.

An estimated 400,000 people and 140,000 cars cross our border daily. Does the U.S. really want to slow down traffic and turn the border agents into toll collectors when their primary task is to look for bad guys?

We need to distinguish between what is noise – the Homeland Security proposal – and what is important.

What is important is that the biggest infrastructure project at our largest border gateway – the new Detroit-Windsor bridge – was recently given a Presidential permit with the backing of nine D.C. agencies.

The bridge odyssey has taken 14 years and constant effort by our Detroit consulate and the Ontario and Canadian governments. We are fronting a half-billion dollars for its construction, which is also the estimated daily value of the goods that cross this vital gateway. There will be more bumps before the traffic flows, but we are at the beginning of the end.

The lesson we can draw from both the DHS kerfuffle and the bridge saga is that we need to wage a permanent campaign in the United States on behalf of Canadian interests.

We need a thousand points of contact to complement our embassy and our consulates. This means taking our game to the States because by the time a problem reaches Congress we are fire-fighting.

Recent budget paring in Canada has reduced our consulates in the United States to fifteen. Yet, what we need is representation in every state. We can do it, within budget, by doing diplomacy differently.

Recruit talent from the Canadian expatriates who are already living in each state. Let them practice digital-age diplomacy. Drop the black tie for a BlackBerry and a working knowledge of new media.

With some exceptions – our embassy’s prime location on Pennsylvania Avenue is crucial, and the Los Angeles consul-general’s residence is a second home for Canada’s entertainment industry – these diplomats can work from their homes or incubator offices to spot opportunities for trade and investment.

As U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson repeatedly reminds us, the most important thing the United States can do to help the Canadian economy is to get the U.S. economy back on track. For 35 American states, their principal export market is Canada.

This trade supports nearly eight million U.S. jobs, a fact not lost on President Barack Obama, who has promised to ‘export’ the U.S. back into prosperity. Last year U.S. exports to Canada exceeded total U.S. exports to China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore combined.

Canadian exports to the United States were almost three times greater than our combined total to the rest of the world. Trade with the United States represents almost half of our GDP.

A half century ago, Minister of Trade and Industry George Hees encouraged members of Canada’s Trade Commissioner Service to ‘bust your ass’ for Canada. The instruction stands.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is senior advisor to McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP and vice president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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