US-CANADA: Shared Border, Unilateral Policy?

TORONTO - Canada and the United States are on different wavelengths when it comes to a shared and increasingly hardening of what had been a sleepy border within North America.
One University of Toronto political scientist doubts this will change anytime soon in the wake of how "paranoia" in the U.S. about its northern frontier has continued under the administration of Barack Obama.

"The U.S. approach to border security has been consistently unilateral," said Stephen Clarkson, the author of "Does North America Exist: Governing the Continent After NAFTA and 9/11" . "Canada and Mexico have the option of doing what the Americans want and then consulting about how they will do that," he told IPS.

"As for the continental perimeter, there is one in the sense that antiterrorism and visa regulations [for both countries] have largely been harmonised to U.S. standards. At the same time, the U.S. has reinforced its land borders. The result is that we have both a fortress North America and an internal U.S. wall," he said.

Some of this has been fuelled by the insecurity within the U.S. towards the traditionally undefended northern border in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington and the mistaken notion among some U.S. politicians, including the new U.S. Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano, that some of the airplane hijackers arrived via Canada.

She reiterated upon visiting Canada last week that she had been mistaken in her initial assertion about Canada but then urged her hosts to move on.

"What I regret is that Canada can't seem to get beyond one misstatement to what I'm trying to suggest," she said. "And what I am suggesting is to say we share security concerns, just as we share trade concerns, just as we share all kinds of other concerns," she told reporters.

While Canadians are worried about illegal guns and drugs coming into their country, the U.S. is preoccupied with terrorism and illegal immigration going south, as well as the presence of a large Muslim population in Canada, observed Clarkson.

At the same time, both Ottawa and Washington have maintained the posture that the insurgency in Afghanistan represents a real threat to the North American continent, he noted.

"Canada is one of the few countries along with the U.S. that defines the Afghan situation in terms of our national security," he said.

Nevertheless, the joint statement by Napolitano and Peter Van Loan, the Canadian public safety minister, that Canada and the U.S. will jointly assess security threats on their shared border is a major breakthrough and a departure from the unilateralism of George W. Bush, commented Reg Whittaker, political scientist at the University of Victoria and a security specialist.

"The U.S. would just make unilateral decisions about what they consider to be, who they consider to be threats, and what they consider being threats. So, it is perfectly appropriate that we have some kind of machinery in place to facilitate and create cooperation," he told IPS.

Greater sharing of perceived threats by Canadians and U.S. police and intelligence may eliminate the scenario where a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, was automatically "kidnapped" in a U.S. city by U.S. officials and sent to a prison in his country of birth for torture during the Bush administration, Whittaker said.

"Instead of having ad hoc kind of arrangements that are subject to abuse, to have something that is more institutionalised and recognises from the American point of view that Canada has something to contribute, here, and Canadians should be respected and not told what to do," he said.

Also, it appears that the Conservative government in Ottawa has abandoned its initial position - while the party was in opposition - of negotiating a joint immigration and refugee arrangement under a so-called North American security perimeter.

This represents a recognition by even a right-wing, supposedly more pro-U.S. administration in Ottawa that Canada as the smaller player in North America would invariably have to adopt U.S. laws and approaches in total if it went this route, added Whittaker.

"That is the problem with a security perimetre. One set of rules that are exactly the same [on] who gets into the country, and so on. Given the power relationship between Canada and the U.S. that means Canada gives up its autonomy to have its own policies. And there are all kinds of issues where Canada has really distinctive rules abut immigration. For example, positively encouraging francophone immigration [because of Quebec in the Canadian federation]," he said.

Nevertheless, despite the advance of a joint threat assessment, Brian Masse, the opposition Member of Parliament from the border city of Windsor, Ontario pointed to what he described as the "militarisation" of the Canada U.S. border. He expressed concern about the presence of U.S. gunboats, Black Hawk helicopters, drone planes, fences and spy towers on the U.S. side.

Masse is critical of a new feature in the Napolitano/Van Loan announcement that will allow U.S. and Canadian law enforcement personnel to ride in each others' vessels in the lakes and waterways along the shared border and enforce the other countries' laws. "It allows on the Canadian side Americans to arrest Canadians and also on the American side Canadians to arrest Americans," the Canadian politician told IPS.

He remarked on the introduction on the U.S. side of Coast Guard vessels carrying auto cannons that have the capacity to shoot 750 1,200 rounds per minute.

Masse remarked this follows an earlier and little discussed announcement that U.S. troops will be allowed with the permission of Ottawa to enter Canada in an emergency situation.

He also stated that the Canadian government missed the opportunity in the recent discussions with the homeland security secretary to push for a loosening of the Canada U.S. border.

"[The U.S. policy] is making our border like the Mexican border... I can't imagine a threat coming from Canada. I mean we all want to be more secure. Does that require Black Hawk helicopters [and] gun boats?" he asked.

Canada has not recovered from the negative impact that the 9/11 attacks have had on north-south trade within North America, commented Steven Globerman, who teaches business at Western Washington university in Bellingham, Washington and is the co-author of the recent book, "The Impact of 9/11 on Canada-US Trade".

While U.S. exports to Canada returned to a normal level by 2004, Canadian exports have between 2001 and 2007 declined by about 15 to 20 percent because of a hardened 9/11 U.S. border, Globerman told IPS.

Among the factors contributing to this trend has been the disruption of a formerly seamless border under the North American free trade agreement where parts produced within continental manufacturing operations such as auto and steel crossed back and forth without disruption.

Another manifestation of this has been the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative travel rules in the U.S. which obligate the carrying of valid documentation by anyone including Canadians crossing into the U.S. Many commentators have observed that because more Canadians carry passports than Americans, it is widely expected that U.S. travel to Canada will decline.

"All of these various phenomena [of disruption] contribute to Canadian goods costing more in the U.S. because it costs more to bring them across the border," Globerman said. "If you raise the price obviously you are going to reduce your sales, whether we are talking about goods that are sold to other producers in the U.S. or goods that are sold to retailers."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.