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

Tories accused of secrecy on border-security deal with U.S. Add to ...

Stephen Harper's government is coming under fire for failing to bring details of behind-the-scenes border security talks with the United States before the House of Commons.

As The Globe and Mail has reported, Mr. Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama will meet on Friday in Washington to kick-start planning for what could be the most sweeping changes to the Canada-U.S. border since the 1988 free-trade deal.

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The aim is deeper co-operation with Washington on border security and border-crossing infrastructure with the aim of ensuring commerce between Canada and its largest trading partner is not choked off by an ever-expanding U.S. security clampdown.

Government documents obtained by The Globe in December showed the Harper government internally describing the negotiations as talks for a "perimeter security" deal. They predicted one of the biggest critics would be Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, because they expected a deal would increase the amount of data exchanged between law enforcement and other authorities in both countries.

The Harper government has kept mum about the discussions, though, and has refused to publicly discuss the agenda for this Friday's meeting with Mr. Obama. The Prime Minister avoided answering questions on the topic in the Commons, leaving it to a parliamentary secretary.

This low-profile approach would appear in keeping with documents obtained by The Globe and Mail that showed the Harper government believes Canadians fail to see the need for tougher security measures. "The Canadian public may underestimate the security threat to Canada," said a briefing for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae accused the government of being overly secretive.

"Mr. Harper is leaving Canadians in the dark about a major decision that will potentially affect every aspect of their lives," Mr. Rae said.

"If signed, this agreement could mean that Canada will be obligated to share intelligence and harmonize regulations for everything from cereal to fighter jets with the U.S."

The Liberals, who when in government signed a security co-operation agreement with the United States, were careful not to condemn outright the talks themselves - but only to raise concern about the process.

Business groups acknowledge that they're being given few details by Ottawa on what the Conservatives have been arranging to help expedite trade and travel across the Canada-U.S. border.

"I'm hearing this more from the press than from anyone else that there's going to be an announcement around a new perimeter security approach to the border," said Jay Myers, president of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters.

"We didn't know the Prime Minister was going to head down there this week. The last thing we'd heard was it was going to be put off until spring."

As The Globe and Mail reported, the Prime Minister and the U.S. President will order a working group of senior bureaucrats to finalize within a few months agreements that would transform the 49th parallel through co-operative arrangements on trade, security and border management.

It would mean sharing intelligence, harmonizing regulations for everything from cereal to fighter jets, and creating a bilateral agency to oversee the building and upgrading of bridges, roads and other border infrastructure.

Diane Ablonczy, parliamentary secretary to the Foreign Affairs Minister, said the Tories want to ensure the "border between our shared country is accessible and that any roadblocks are removed" as soon as possible.

"The government must be doing something right because the Liberals do not like us talking to the Americans, and the NDP said we should talk faster."

Follow on Twitter: @stevenchase

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