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The Maple Leaf and U.S. flag are seen at the Nexus border office at Pearson airport in Toronto on Sept. 17, 2007. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
The Maple Leaf and U.S. flag are seen at the Nexus border office at Pearson airport in Toronto on Sept. 17, 2007. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Ottawa crafts plan to ward off criticism over U.S. border deal Add to ...

The Harper government is bracing for a backlash over a border security agreement it is negotiating with the United States, anticipating it will spark worries about eroding sovereignty and privacy rights, a document obtained by The Globe and Mail shows.

The Department of Public Safety communications strategy for the "perimeter security" deal amounts to a blueprint for selling the agreement to Canadians.

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It also provides a rare insight into how the government regards Canadians: as a nation ignorant of the true scale of the security threat it faces and more concerned with privacy rights.

The communications strategy for the perimeter security declaration - which the document says will be unveiled in January, 2011 - predicts one of the biggest potential critics will be the federal privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart. That's because the deal is expected to increase the amount of data exchanged between law enforcement and other government authorities in both countries.

"Greater information sharing is part of the initiative. The safeguarding of privacy and sovereignty will be of concern for Canadians," the document says.

The strategy predicts that Canadians may fail to see the need for a perimeter security deal to help safeguard cross-border trade through efforts such as a joint cargo screening initiative.

"The Canadian public may underestimate the security threat to Canada," the communication plan says.

Former CSIS director Jim Judd made similar comments to a U.S. State Department official in 2008, according to diplomatic cables disclosed last week by WikiLeaks. The ex-spy chief complained about public naiveté about the extent of the terrorism threat this country faces.

The communication strategy labels Ms. Stoddart as a "high risk" stakeholder who will "raise concerns re: information sharing and protecting private information." It also anticipates criticism from civil rights groups and others such as Council of Canadians chairwoman Maude Barlow.

Canada is also anticipating that the government of Mexico "may raise concerns about not being included in the vision," the strategy says.

Canadians learned of the secret talks for a deal after leaks to the media this week.

Under a perimeter deal, Canada and the United States would harmonize rules and practices for screening offshore imports and travellers. They would more closely collaborate on the defence of North America including on immigration, border protection and law enforcement. The two countries already have an air perimeter defence agreement, the North American Aerospace Defence Command, but a deal that focused on external threats arriving by shipping container, ship or land could in theory create an equally secure border around them and lessen the need for burgeoning security controls at the Canada-U.S. border that have been slowing the flow of trade.

In recent years, companies have had to abandon just-in-time shipping and stockpile goods instead to deal with the uncertainty about delays in shipments across the border between Canada and the United States, its biggest trading partner.

Such a deal would seek to assure the Americans that Canada is adequately screening offshore imports arriving by ship or plane so that they would ease up on security restrictions at the Canada-U.S. border.

The federal communications plan says the United States still feels Canada is not doing enough to guard against terrorism.

"Notwithstanding our significant investment to date, a perception exists in the U.S. that Canada has not focused enough on security," the Public Safety document says.

The Canadian government is refusing to discuss the negotiations, but the communications plan mentions a joint press conference by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama in January to announce a declaration on the matter and hold an official signing ceremony.

Afterward, officials from both countries would have 120 days to work out the details, the documents obtained by The Globe say.

Liberal public safety critic Mark Holland said it's unacceptable that the Tories are trying to conduct such serious negotiations from "behind an iron curtain," adding that the Conservatives should warn Canadians about their intentions. "When this government keeps you in the dark, it's usually for a reason," he said.

"This is a government that treats Canadians as children and tries to circumvent debate and feels they don't have enough knowledge to be consulted."

Mr. Holland said Canada must not cede sovereignty over how it deals with refugees and immigration.

"There's nothing wrong with working more closely with the Americans ... but the terms that govern this have to be set very carefully."

Canadian Chamber of Commerce president Perrin Beatty said Public Safety Minister Vic Toews is the first Ottawa minister who is prepared to talk openly about forming a common security perimeter with the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

"For nine years, it was a word that politicians dared not speak," said Mr. Beatty, whose group is the largest business lobby in Canada. He said this reticence was caused by a misplaced sense that Canadians would reject the idea. Mr. Beatty argues that Canadians are pragmatic and would accept the tradeoffs of closer integration with U.S. security.

He said he never would have predicted he'd agree to biometric scans as the price of having a NEXUS card that allows easier entry into the United States. "If anybody had told me I would be providing a retinal scan to our two governments, I would have said there was absolutely no way that would happen," Mr. Beatty said.

"The simple fact is the world has changed. These are fair tradeoffs for us to make in order to have freedom of mobility."

John Manley, a former Liberal deputy prime minister and now president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, said talks appear to be going in the right direction, but cautioned there has to be a bottom-line payoff in terms of smoother shipping at Canada-U.S. border land crossings.

"The real question will be what do we get at the border in exchange for greater co-ordination on security," Mr. Manley said.

According to the communications strategy, key federal ministers would undertake a campaign to sell the deal to Canadians, including visits with editorial boards, media events and speeches.

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