Tragedies can divide people and nations. They can also bring them together in shared solidarity as was recently demonstrated by Canada and the United States around our still-developing security perimeter.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States retrenched. The 49th parallel became a real border. Since then both countries, at the initiative of Canadian governments – Liberal and Conservative – have worked to create a security perimeter within which people and goods can circulate. Last month, the perimeter concept passed a critical confidence test.
The recent assassination of Canadian soldiers on Canadian soil by adherents of radical Islam (mental health also played a role) could easily have resurrected American fears of a soft-on-security Canada.
A week earlier, Politico, the popular Washington insiders' daily, ran a story describing "the real terrorist threat next door."
Headlined "Fear Canada," it rehashed the tale of millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam and the Toronto 18 warning that the U.S. has much more to fear from Canada. Even if the piece had a South Park "Blame Canada" quality, it could have found an audience in perfervid Washington. But it didn't.
Instead, the U.S. reaction to the assassinations has been empathetic and understanding.
Within days, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry laid a wreath at our national cenotaph, symbolizing American sympathy and solidarity. This past weekend, at the Halifax International Security Forum, the congressional delegation led by Republican Senator John McCain and Democrat Senator Tim Kaine expressed the same sentiment, acknowledging that such events could also happen in the United States.
So what has changed?
A lot, including the development of a verifiable security "perimeter" – a word once forbidden from the official Canadian lexicon for fear it would somehow undermine Canadian sovereignty.
The "Smart Border" Accord, negotiated by then Deputy Prime Minister John Manley and Homeland Security Adviser (and later Secretary) Tom Ridge, kicked off the process with its checklist of thirty plus deliverables. It succeeded.
Mr. Manley and Mr. Ridge trusted each other. They set deadlines and demanded that their officials reconcile their differences before the two met.
But progress is not always in a straight line. When former prosecutor Michael Chertoff succeeded Mr. Ridge, border co-operation froze. Enforcement became the order of the day.
A more accessible border was Prime Minister Stephen Harper's first ask of Mr. Obama during the President's visit to Ottawa in February, 2009. When it went nowhere, Mr. Harper renewed his request and, in December, 2011, the Harper agenda became a shared plan for border and regulatory collaboration.
Converging Canadian and American public attitudes towards security help the process.
An IPSOS poll, released at the Halifax Forum, says that 60 per cent of Canadians and two-thirds of Americans see the world as a more dangerous place, underlining the case for co-operation.
A second look by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs at recent Canadian and American polling concluded that strong majorities – 57 per cent in Canada and 72 per cent in the U.S. – support closer co-operation on border security.
Border and regulatory co-operation is delivering results:
Enhancing collaborative cross-border law enforcement most visibly through the "Shiprider" program where enforcement officers of both nations jointly police the Great Lakes.
Harmonized approach on who can enter the perimeter. Canada is introducing an electronic travel authorization system that will parallel the existing U.S. visa-free system for pre-screening entry from travellers from visa-free countries.
Systematic information sharing on immigrant and refugee applicants, including entry information on third-country nationals thus allowing our two countries to share information on who has entered.
Joint border infrastructure planning to improve passage, including 28 binational ports-of-entry committees created to ensure local input.
Other tangible improvements include additional trusted-traveller lines at our ports of entry. Over a million Canadians subscribe to the "fast-pass" NEXUS program.
There is still work to do.
We need to merge the various trusted-traveller programs (and include Mexico). We need to roll-out the "single window" program so businesses and travellers can provide information to both governments once, not umpteen times in different formats.
The financing of the Detroit customs plaza remains unresolved. "Once inspected, twice (and eventually thrice) cleared" is still more rhetoric than reality. Border officials on both sides still behave with an "enforcement" mentality rather than as expeditors of goods and people.
We need to make permanent border and regulatory oversight within our Privy Council Office. Changes to the U.S. government's North American oversight, recommended in the recent Council on Foreign Relations report, deserves attention.
But we are making progress and passing real tests. Our continental perimeter, one that will eventually include Mexico, is taking shape.