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Business warms to border deal, but 'devil is always in the details'

Perrin Beatty speaks in Windsor, Ont., on Jan. 12, 2007.

Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press

Canadian business groups are reacting positively to news from Washington of a push toward a North American perimeter approach to security and trade between Canada and the United States.

Representatives of about a dozen business groups received briefings on the plan in Ottawa from federal public servants.

Perrin Beatty, the president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, says he likes what he heard but wants more details.

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"Directionally, it's all to the good," he said in an interview.

Mr. Beatty said he was encouraged to hear that he and other business leaders will be involved in working out some of those details before any deal is final. He later issued a statement suggesting the plan is focused on improving intelligence away from the actual Canada-U.S. border.

"Our physical security depends upon our ability to push out our borders through an intelligence-based approach to security. Such an approach would allow us to intercept threats long before they reach our shores," he said.

The government's announcement contained few details. A backgrounder paper released by the Prime Minister's Office consists largely of a summary of existing arrangements on information-sharing and improving the flow of goods and travellers at the border.

The "Declaration on a Shared Vision for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness" is described as a plan that "will play an essential part in modernizing the border to address future security and competitiveness opportunities and challenges."

Canadian Federation of Independent Business vice-president Dan Kelly said Canada deserves credit for convincing U.S. President Barrack Obama to talk about open borders at a time when there is a growing protectionist mood in Congress and heightened concern over border security.

Mr. Kelly said he is encouraged by the plans to reduce "red tape" and harmonize regulations between the two countries to improve business. He noted, however, that similar pledges of co-operation have been made before.

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"There's been lots of announcements along these lines in the past," he said. "The devil's always in the details. There weren't a tonne of them today."

A coalition of U.S. and Canadian manufacturers issued a joint statement praising the plan.

"Today's announcement by President Obama and Prime Minister Harper on their shared objectives is an important step forward in addressing the needs of manufacturers in the integrated Canadian-U.S. economy," says the group, which is made up of the American Automotive Policy Council representing the Big Three auto makers; Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters; the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers' Association; and the National Association of Manufacturers, the largest manufacturing association in the United States.

While business leaders who received the briefing wanted more information, no background briefings were offered to the Canadian media. Members of Parliament were also left to scour the government's news release and watch the news conference in Washington held by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the President.

"There's kind of an old-boys feel to this," NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said. "It's clearly not transparent."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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