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Breaking down borders: Canada-U.S. trade and security

Three-hour delays snarled truck traffic along Huron Church Road in Windsor, Ont., Wednesday, April 2, 2003. United States Customs officers are thoroughly checking U.S.-bound vehicles at the Ambassador Bridge.

Jason Kryk/The Canadian Press/Jason Kryk/The Canadian Press

Why it's happening

Barack Obama and Stephen Harper will sign an action plan Friday ordering bureaucrats to draft agreements that would tighten continental security and the flow of trade.

Borders aren't flowing as easily as they did in the years before Sept. 11, or in trade parlance, they are thickening. Friday's declaration aims to break the logjams while also deterring possible terrorist attacks.

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If the agreements live up to expectations, the two countries would integrate efforts to clear goods and people crossing the border, to improve infrastructure, to harmonize safety standards for consumer products and to share information about who and what is setting foot on the other's shores.

With an election imminent, the opposition parties are already warning of backroom deals that could erode Canadian sovereignty.

"Why is it that the government is talking about fundamental issues of Canadian sovereignty and Canadian freedoms with the Americans without talking to Canadians first?" Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff demanded in the House of Commons Thursday.

The Harper Conservatives may be gambling that the fragile economic recovery and the popularity of President Obama in Canada will convince most Canadians that it's time to thin the border.

Much of the material used in this Folio comes from a draft paper written by retired diplomat Colin Robertson for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and the Canadian International Council. It is a look at what the agreements might look like once drawn up.

Where you stand on the deal might depend on how much the border means to you.

What's in it for everyone

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Cars and trucks would cross the border more often, creating and protecting more jobs. As obstacles accumulated like barnacles after the attacks of Sept. 11 - manifests must be more detailed, you need a passport at land crossings - a decade of trade growth between Canada and the U.S. flattened; when the recession hit, it plummeted. Total trade declined from $557-billion in 2004 to $457-billion in 2009. Efforts to persuade the Americans to ease access have been met with accusations that Canada doesn't take security concerns seriously enough. So the Conservatives are offering a swap: If the Americans will lift restrictions, Canada will work more closely on continental security.


More control over who and what comes into Canada. The Americans have long feared that, as a Homeland Security official once put it to this writer: "You let in a whole lot of people and you don't know who they are." Terrorists or a dirty bomb could enter the U.S. through this country. Extreme Islamist cells in Canada could hatch plots for attacks across the border. A continental security perimeter would let Americans know who Canada is letting in and what they're up to.

The likely agenda


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Potential: This might start with fortified food and auto parts. Each country would accept the other side's standards for product safety and quality, an agreement that would cut red tape and could greatly lower exporting costs. As a good-faith gesture, both sides might increase the duty-free allowance.

Worries: Do both countries trust each other? What if we disagree with a decision the other has made? What if Canada approves a genetically modified corn seed even though the Americans aren't convinced it's safe? And is there enough trust? Both countries already accuse each other of circumventing agreements and imposing barriers. Softwood lumber, anyone?


Potential: Everyone and everything would cross the border more easily under a single, integrated watchful eye. Building joint customs facilities; clearing goods at factories and then sealing the trucks; pooling data bases and synchronizing entry and exit requirements; harmonizing visa regimes. Both sides would also implement more fully electronic scanning, digital data bases and trusted-traveller programs.

Worries: That watchful eye might be the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, with Canada as a bystander.


Potential: The first step could be to create a joint commission on border infrastructure. Planning, environmental assessments, construction and management of border facilities, from customs check points to new bridges, would all be managed together.

Worries: This joint-infrastructure initiative could be aimed at getting Canada to pick up the tab for bridges and roads the Americans can't afford.

What happens from here

The President and the Prime Minister will sign an action plan in the Oval Office creating a working group consisting of senior bureaucrats from both countries They would have around four months to put together a series of recommendations.

Then rubber, meet road: The two governments would have to decide what all this would cost, and whether it's worth it. The easy parts might be accepted: the duty-free allowance is increased! Woo-hoo! But a more controversial idea, say, American naval patrols in Canadian waters? Batten down the hatches! Both the Prime Minister and the President would also have to decide what the two governments could implement just by rewriting the rules, and what would have to be taken to Parliament and Congress as legislation. Either way, there could be dust-ups in both capitals.

If there is a spring election, a new Canadian government would be in place before any of the really hard decisions need to be made. But this, no doubt, is mere coincidence

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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