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A thinning border - but no continental Big Bang

The discussions between the Canadian and American governments over thinning the border have some people talking about an integrated continental security perimeter. Sadly, it's not going to happen.

Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews are in the advanced stage of discussions aimed at arresting the ever-thickening 49th parallel. In exchange for increasingly integrated surveillance - a so-called North American perimeter - people and goods would flow more easily between the two countries through such measures as pre-clearing shipments and expanding the Nexus program, which makes it possible for pre-approved citizens to cross the border with fewer inspections. The Globe's and Mail's Steve Chase writes today on the communications strategy the government is devising to sell the improvements.

That strategy will be vital. Too many Canadians are reflexively suspicious of what they see as American encroachment on this country's sovereignty. Joint surveillance and information-sharing will have Canada-firsters like Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians howling. The NDP will howl too, and the Liberals will, at the least, bark.

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This despite the fact that integrating continental security will keep Canadians as well as Americans safer, just as integrating air defence under NORAD helped keep Canadians as well as Americans safe during the Cold War.

Canadians didn't directly experience the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and most of them have never really agreed that there is a conflict between the Western world and Islamist extremism. The Americans will never get over that day - nor should they - which is why Homeland Security has been making it increasingly hard to cross the border, even though the measures harm the American and well as the Canadian economy.

Some observers, including this writer, would like to see both countries go further. The Big Bang theory, as it's called, envisions a fully integrated North American security perimeter and a fully integrated North American economic sphere that would include a customs union and labour mobility agreement.

This will never happen, because most Canadians don't want to get that close to the Americans, wrongly fearing the federal government would lose control over its immigration and refugee policies. Such a comprehensive accord would require legislation - heck, it would probably require a referendum - and the political environment in Ottawa is too fragile and unstable for any government to attempt such a thing.

So expect incremental, regulatory, no-legislation-required announcements when the border initiative is rolled out in January. It's far better than nothing. What doesn't get thinner gets thicker, with borders as well as with waistlines.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

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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