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It's a simple and tantalizing notion - secure the North American perimeter, rather than erecting more walls within.

The idea is enticing because it offers the hope of creating a happy place, prosperous and shielded from a world of threats.

The so-called "perimeter" is now back in the lexicon of a "Shared Border Vision" agreement that the Harper government is apparently negotiating with the United States.

Today, at the pastoral Le Moulin inn and spa in the Gatineau Hills village of Wakefield, Que., Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon will sit down with his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa. What better venue to discuss this North American nirvana?

"We need to go on working together to ensure the security and well-being of our citizens, as well as the economic recovery and continued prosperity of North America," Mr. Cannon said in advance of the meeting.

If the United States is serious about embracing the concept, Ottawa should seize the moment. Working co-operatively to create a strong perimeter is far more efficient and effective, not to mention cheaper, than duplicating those efforts in three countries.

Sadly, the signals from Washington on this issue have been inconsistent, even conflicting.

U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson has called for a "layered" approach to security, where the 49th parallel would be the last line of defence, not the primary one, as it is now.

"The more we do to improve our security efforts out on the perimeter, away from the border, the more we can focus on working in partnership to achieve border efficiencies here," Mr. Jacobson said recently.

The quid pro quo for Canada of this stronger North American house has always been the promise of fewer and less-intrusive walls within.

That's not the direction the U.S. is going. Ms. Clinton, Mr. Jacobson's boss at the U.S. State Department, has talked of efforts to "harden the border" between Canada and the U.S.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has similarly expressed a desire for "a real border" between the two countries and ensuring that Canada and Mexico are treated equally when it comes to security.

Ms. Clinton and Ms. Napolitano's actions speak even more convincingly of their true intentions. Heavier security and more intrusive red tape have conspired to make the border a lot stickier this decade - a trend that has accelerated during the Obama administration.

The United States has increased sixfold to more than 2,000 the number of agents patrolling the Canada-U.S. border since 2001, with 700 of those added in the past year alone. There are Predator drones, Blackhawk helicopters, hundreds of radiation detectors, radar towers, remote motion sensors, full-body scans and pat-downs.

This multibillion-dollar infrastructure is dedicated to beefing up the Canada-U.S. border, not jointly securing the perimeter. The message implicit in these efforts is that the United States doesn't fully trust what's done beyond its own borders, by Canadians or anyone else.

The sheer weight of this heightened security has overwhelmed a handful of isolated pilot projects dedicated to co-operative security, such as the joint RCMP-U.S. Coast Guard efforts to patrol the waters off the B.C. coast during the Olympics.

The added physical security also pales next to the vast expansion of fees, paperwork and bureaucracy now required at the border - some of it Canadian, more of it American.

The list of barriers seems to grow longer by the month - new passport requirements, tougher scrutiny of Canadian consultants and professionals who travel to the U.S. for work, extraterritorial application of U.S. export controls on sensitive technology, country-of-origin labelling requirements for imported meat, more border inspections of trucks, costly vetting of shippers and new data-reporting requirements for lumber products.

Businesses in both countries complain that these and other measures have slowly eroded the benefits, and promise, of free trade. Canadian companies have responded by doing all the sort of things that free trade was supposed to eliminate, such as stockpiling products on the U.S. side of the border, sending duplicate shipments and even relocating production.

It might be tempting to engage the Americans in a discussion about how to intelligently and efficiently push security away from the border.

But until the Americans demonstrate they're ready to entrust Canadians with the protection of their homeland, the perimeter concept will remain a fantasy and a side-show.