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Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama after a joint news conference in Washington on Feb. 4, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama after a joint news conference in Washington on Feb. 4, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Washington talks about neighbourliness, then builds a higher wall Add to ...

David Jacobson is apparently sincere when he insists people at the highest reaches of the U.S. government are committed to boosting trade with Canada.

“Particularly in my country, people understand that if we’re going to move the needle on exports and on trade and on jobs . . . we’re going to have a lot more bang for our buck by focusing on Canada,” the U.S. ambassador to Canada said recently.

More by Barrie McKenna

It’s a commitment that’s looking a little suspect as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama prepare to unveil their much-anticipated Beyond the Border action plan to create a more seamless boundary.

Canada is counting on the deal to help reverse post-9/11 thickening at the border by better co-ordinating security and getting rid of red tape.

But every few days, it seems, Canadians wake up to news of another affront to their continental pride, and their wallets. A proposed U.S. tariff on Canadian freight. Talk of more fences and drones along the 49th parallel. A tax crackdown on Americans living in Canada. Stiffening opposition to a crucial conduit for Alberta’s oil. A new round of “Buy American” government purchasing restrictions.

All the good things that ultimately flow from the Beyond the Border deal risk being overwhelmed by powerful, isolationist tendencies in the United States.

The net effect will be less trade, a drop in cross-border travel, and fewer jobs in both countries. It’s hard to pitch that as trade-enhancing.

No wonder Mr. Harper and Mr. Obama are reportedly struggling to agree on a good time and place to unveil the border pact.

The Harper government is right to pursue efforts to make the Canada-U.S. border work better. Canada must protect its access to a vital foreign market.

And Mr. Jacobson may be right about Washington decision makers.

But Washington is a complex place, with competing interests constantly vying for influence. And too many Americans either don’t understand the close and interdependent economic relationship between the countries, or choose to willfully ignore its mutual benefits.

The proposed tariff on U.S.-bound rail freight is a classic example of two countries working at cross purposes. Prominent West Coast lawmakers, led by Democratic senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington state, are upset that Canadian ports such as Prince Rupert, B.C., have been stealing container traffic from U.S. ports, which charge a harbour maintenance tax. A U.S. federal agency is now investigating their suggestion of a $140 (U.S.) charge per container on cargo entering the U.S. from Canada to “level the playing field.”

Shippers are migrating to Prince Rupert because it’s several days closer to Asia, where most traffic originates. That means Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other major U.S. retailers can deliver products quicker to customers in both the U.S. and Canada.

Instead of levelling the playing field, a tariff makes both economies less efficient.

Blocking the Keystone XL pipeline, as many Democrats are urging Mr. Obama to do, would similarly be an economic blow to both countries. The pipeline, tapped to carry Alberta oil to underused refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, is clearly in the economic and geopolitical interests of both countries. It would cut U.S. dependence on oil from unsavoury offshore sources and open new markets for Canadian crude, much of which is exploited by U.S. companies.

Or consider the U.S. Internal Revenue Service’s aggressive pursuit of offshore tax evaders. The intent is to hunt wealthy tax cheats. Caught up in the sweep, however, is a much larger group of tax-paying dual Canadian-American citizens – the very people who help forge bonds between neighbouring countries.

Most Canadians want a smarter and easier border. Many Americans do, too. But it’s a dream that repeatedly runs headlong into a powerful strain of U.S. isolationism that wants ever-higher fences and tighter security, regardless of the economic consequences.

A bill now gaining traction in the House of Representatives, for example, would cede control of all U.S. federal lands within 160 kilometres of the Canadian border to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, including iconic areas such as the Great Lakes, Montana’s Glacier National Park, and the Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota. The National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act would allow border agents to build fences and deploy more equipment and staff in these tourist havens, even though there’s no evidence of significant illegal activity.

The Beyond the Border agreement will contain numerous pages of sensible joint projects, from intelligence sharing to harmonized shipping procedures.

Too bad Canada and the U.S. aren’t on the same page on many of the larger issues.

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