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A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer stands watch in Detroit as vehicles cross the Ambassador Bridge from Windsor on June 1, 2009. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press/Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer stands watch in Detroit as vehicles cross the Ambassador Bridge from Windsor on June 1, 2009. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press/Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)

JOHN IBBITSON

Potential Canada-U.S. border deal bound to be controversial Add to ...

Any agreement that Stephen Harper and Barack Obama may sign next month to move Canada and the United States toward a continental security perimeter and a more transparent border will come with tremendous political risks.

Sovereignty. Security. Terrorism. Prosperity. These are loaded words to be throwing around in a federal election that could be called in March.

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According to media reports, the Prime Minister and the President could sign a framework agreement in January to create an integrated continental security perimeter, in exchange for improved flow across the Canada-U.S. border.

Such an agreement is bound to be controversial. Though polls show most Canadians are wary of getting too close to the Americans on border security, people also worry that the thickening border is harming the Canadian economy.

Economic futurists may predict that the United States is in decline and the future lies with Asian powerhouses, but the hard truth is that there is nary a pay cheque in Southern Ontario that doesn't depend on a strong American economy, a truth that isn't going to change anytime soon.

"What the Conservatives are hoping for is that money trumps sovereignty," pollster Nik Nanos said in an interview, "that people will be willing to give up a little in order to get something in return."

Perrin Beatty, head of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, thinks they will.

"This is a case where the public is way ahead of the politicians," he said. In the years since the attacks of Sept. 11, Canadians have become more pragmatic about the necessary tradeoffs to protect both Canada and the United States from a second attack, Mr. Beatty said.

Mr. Beatty was in Brian Mulroney's cabinet during the 1988 election, in which the question of whether to sign the Free Trade Agreement with the United States dominated the debate. That election proved that you don't need most Canadians in favour of free trade to sign a deal. A solid minority is sufficient, if the opposition fractures among the other parties.

Except that Michael Ignatieff is a bred-in-the-bone continentalist. And the Liberal Party that opposed free trade in 1988 became the Liberal Party that signed NAFTA in 1993 and the original Smart Border Accord in 2001.

"It's quite possible," the Liberal Party will support a new border agreement, said former deputy prime minister John Manley, who now heads the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. "It all depends on what's in the package."

Mr. Ignatieff is said to be willing to support an agreement in principle, provided Canada doesn't have to change its immigration or refugee policies.

But Mr. Nanos believes the Liberals need to differentiate from the Conservatives, having agreed to a further extension of Canada's mission in Afghanistan. One approach, he said, may be the "not enough" strategy: A border agreement is needed, "but this is a bad deal because there's not enough for us."

A border agreement will not be popular in Quebec.

And both Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe and NDP Leader Jack Layton will wrap themselves in the flag - just different flags.

"Beware Americans bearing gifts," warned Ken Georgetti, head of the Canadian Labour Congress.

Sounds like a perfect slogan for an election campaign.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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