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Harper and Obama ink deal to ease travel, bolster border security

U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper shake hands at a news conference on Dec. 7, 2011, in Washington, D.C. The two spoke after a meeting to discuss the countries' bilateral relationship.

Pete Marovich/Getty Images/Pete Marovich/Getty Images

Stephen Harper and Barack Obama have agreed to a plan to smooth entry into the United States for Canadian goods and travellers that would see Canada work more hand-in-glove with the massive U.S. security bureaucracy to screen people and cargo for threats.

In return, the Americans are promising to negotiate agreements that will "pre-clear" U.S.-bound goods and travellers from Canada that are shipped by land, rail and water so all can pass more quickly across the shared border.

Efforts to pre-clear and pre-inspect Canadian goods so they can avoid hold-ups at the border are still a work in progress though, rather than a done deal.

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The two leaders, who first trumpeted this perimeter security deal in February, unveiled further details at the White House Wednesday.

At the heart of this undertaking is the notion that the ports of Halifax, or Vancouver, for instance, form part of a common perimeter encircling North America and must be secured to the Americans' satisfaction so Washington can more readily trust shipments that enter the United States at the Canadian border.

The perimeter deal is Canada's third effort since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorism attacks to convince the Americans that bilateral commerce needs to be protected from the ever-expanding U.S. security clampdown that is clogging trade with new rules and procedures.

"Billions of dollars worth of goods and hundreds of thousands of people cross our shared border every day," Mr. Harper said.

"Moving security to the perimeter of our continent will transform our border and create jobs and growth in Canada by improving the flow of goods and people between our two countries."

Under the perimeter-security plan, Canada has committed to increasingly sharing with the United States the security intelligence gathered by its police and law authorities.

Canada has also pledged to ratchet up scrutiny on foreigners – even from countries that don't need a visa to come to Canada. Citizens of countries that require no visa for Canada will be obliged complete a form before arrival that supplies what officials refer to as visa-type information .

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Canada is also promising to adopt U.S.-approved bomb detection machines for luggage screening; and to a system for verifying the identities of inbound foreign travellers and goods that matches the American system

Critics say Canada is ceding autonomy over border controls to the United States in this perimeter security deal but Canadian officials say they're merely co-operating more closely with Americans.

A centre piece of this agreement, first heralded by both countries in February, is a joint entry-exit tracking system where the United States and Canada will effectively merge their land-border screening efforts on their common frontier by recording and sharing details on people crossing there.

Ottawa and Washington are also forming police and law enforcement teams to conduct joint patrols or investigations along their shared land border – an extension of an existing marine program called "Shiprider."

While Canadian business has long requested help on easing border crossings, Wednesday's deal is heavy on pilot projects and promises rather than concrete deliverables.

Officials say they hope to have deals worked out that would provide for Canadian goods to be pre-cleared by the end of 2012.

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Increasing and erratic border controls, for instance, in recent years have forced companies to abandon just-in-time shipping and stockpile goods to reduce the risks of transaction delays in cross-border trade.

The agreement risks being sidelined, however, as Mr. Obama is increasingly distracted by the need to fight the 2012 presidential election campaign.

The perimeter deal is not a treaty – and Mr. Harper and Mr. Obama have signed nothing that irrevocably binds them to do anything.

While this gives Canada flexibility, it also means that bureaucratic inertia can doom the deal. That's because much of the action plans require negotiations and fleshing-out by officials in both countries – a hazardous process that can easily fall victim to shifting priorities, such as a U.S. presidential election.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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