Stephen Harper and Barack Obama will meet on Friday to set in motion the most sweeping changes to the Canada-U.S. border since the 1988 free-trade agreement.
According to information obtained by The Globe and Mail, 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 management of the boundary line.
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.
There would be easier passage of people and goods and greater prospects of deterring terrorists and criminals. But the move will raise fears over personal privacy and national sovereignty.
Ottawa is trying to ensure business between Canada and its largest trading partner is not choked off by an ever-expanding U.S. security clampdown at the border. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, bilateral trade has been increasingly hamstrung by new U.S. rules and inspections. Companies have been forced to abandon just-in-time shipping and stockpile goods in case of delays.
Some of the agreements could be implemented through changes to regulations, but others could require legislation that would have to be approved by Parliament and Congress.
The new co-operation plan is a follow-up to a failed attempt in the past decade, the Security and Prosperity Partnership, to harmonize the regulatory regimes of Canada, the United States and Mexico.
The talks on border infrastructure would take as their example the St. Lawrence Seaway, which Canada and the United States built in the 1950s and jointly manage. The goal is to find co-operative ways to improve border infrastructure, including bridges and roads, along with joint funding and oversight once projects are complete.
The most controversial aspect of the talks will be an attempt to more deeply integrate the sharing of intelligence on people and products to ensure that anything or anyone entering either country would be properly inspected and the information shared.
Those concerned about protecting privacy and Canadian sovereignty will strongly oppose what some call a continental security perimeter.
As if on cue, the Government Accountability Office, the rough U.S. equivalent of Canada's Auditor-General, released a report on Tuesday that revealed the United States government can monitor activity along only one-quarter of the 6,400-kilometre border, making it easier to smuggle drugs, guns or terrorists across the 49th parallel than across the Mexico-U.S. border.
The report proves that the United States "does not have the ability to detect illegal activity across most of the northern border," Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman said at a news conference. "These findings … should sound an alarm, an urgent call for action," by U.S. and Canadian security officials, he said.
When asked whether Canadians should be required to obtain visas to enter the United States, he said, "I think it's something that we should be talking about with our Canadian neighbours." He went on to note that "Canadians do have more lenient asylum and immigration laws than we do here, and that potentially has an effect on us because of our border with them."
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney replied that visas "would be massively problematic from an economic perspective," and the suggestion shouldn't be taken seriously.
According to Colin Robertson, a former diplomat who has discussed border issues with officials on both sides, at last June's G20 summit in Toronto, Mr. Harper approached Mr. Obama to discuss the increasing difficulty of moving people and goods.
"The Prime Minister said 'look, we're not making the progress we'd like. Would you give this a bit of a boost?' " Mr. Robertson said. In exchange, he said, Mr. Harper promised, 'if we have to look at perimeter defence … we're ready to do it.'"
The two sides made good progress, although concerns from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security delayed a final agreement, which had been expected as early as December.
Apart from announcing that Mr. Harper and Mr. Obama would meet on Friday, the Conservative government and the White House refused on Tuesday even to confirm that the border was the principal item on the agenda.
But Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff had no doubts.
"The Prime Minister has announced he is going to Washington on Friday to talk to the Americans about something he does not seem to want to talk to Canadians about," he said in the House of Commons.
He demanded that Mr. Harper "bring this deal back to the House for an open debate before he surrenders Canadian sovereignty."
The negotiations will be politically controversial, especially on what could be the eve of a spring election. While it plays to key Conservative priorities - protecting the economy while deterring crime - many Canadians oppose closer ties to what they see as a declining power that has compromised its democracy in the war on terrorism.