Canada-U.S. summit on perimeter security delayed
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is greeted by United States President Barack Obama as he arrives to the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. on Monday April 12, 2010. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)
The Canadian Press
Published Monday, January 10, 2011 6:36AM EST
OTTAWA - A highly touted meeting between Stephen Harper and Barack Obama on a perimeter security pact has been pushed back as Canada and the United States wrestle with the difficulties of making the complex arrangement a reality.
Insiders say the signing summit is now expected no earlier than February and possibly as late as spring.
They say increased information sharing -- a prospect that raises privacy concerns in Canada -- will be key to the effort to secure the outer boundaries of North America.
The idea is to control who enters and leaves the continent in a consistent manner, allowing officials to ease security at the Canada-U.S. border, paving the way for a return to more free-flowing passage of vehicles and cargo.
Canadian business leaders have complained since the 9-11 attacks on the United States that increasingly stringent border controls have hamstrung commerce and tourism.
The driving force behind the change in the U.S. mindset has been Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, said Fen Hampson, director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Napolitano's predecessors placed security above trade, but she is the first U.S. security czar to fully accept the notion "that North American prosperity depends on the free flow of goods, services and people, certainly across the Canada-U.S. border," said Hampson.
"She's been trying to rein in the bureaucratic monster. She's been trying to get her officials to understand that Canada is not Mexico."
There's now a "new openness to looking at fresh approaches," said Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
"It's not a case that the Americans have downed tools on physical security but it appears they recognize that if we damage ourselves economically ... we're paying a price that is very substantial, and al-Qaida wins as a consequence."
Beatty says a deal must result in common standards for passengers and cargo entering North America.
A possible benefit for Canada would be the establishment of new pre-clearance facilities -- large screening centres that ease the flow of truck traffic -- on the Canadian side of the border, said Ted Alden, senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations.
The Americans have resisted expansion of such pre-clearance stations because U.S. authorities wouldn't have full arrest powers on Canadian soil.
Officials have set a four-month window to make concrete progress once they get the green light from leaders. But there are strong indications a genuine perimeter arrangement will take much longer to craft.
Hampson said a key obstacle remains the American view that Canadian immigration policies are too lax.
Canada's recent tightening of immigration laws could help assuage U.S. concerns, but both countries are a long way from a full customs union or the common immigration approach of the European Union, he said.
Observers believe harmonization of visa policies and refugee acceptance rules is likely off the table due to the sensitivity of these issues in Canada.
However, a deal could include integrated sharing of information about air and marine passengers from abroad. The U.S. is already pressing Canada for details of air travellers who merely pass through American airspace en route to Mexico and other foreign destinations.
Another element would be exit controls: the use of biometric data such as fingerprints or iris scans to tell when someone has left either Canada or the United States, in a bid to ensure people present on temporary visas don't overstay their welcome.
It could mean Canada keeping track of foreign nationals entering the country from the United States, and the U.S. doing the same on Canada's behalf, said Alden.
It would also require both countries to record departures by air and water.
"This is certainly something the U.S. is very interested in."
Although Canada and the U.S. already have good intelligence sharing -- including tracking threats to the continent in foreign countries -- the Americans have an insatiable demand for exit information, said Hampson. "Most countries have entry controls but you're also interested in who's leaving and how often."
Hampson believes the issue could be thorny for Canada, since the sharing of exit data "strikes at the heart of sovereignty."
As news of the renewed border negotiations leaked out last fall, the Conservative government faced criticism for compromising Canadian interests.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff accused Harper of trying to cut a secret deal with the U.S. without consulting the House of Commons.
"If the prime minister is so convinced that the deal is good for Canadian sovereignty and good for Canadian rights, why will he not debate it in public? What is he hiding?" Ignatieff asked.
The Council of Canadians, which has consistently opposed all integration initiatives with the U.S., also expressed concern.
Group chairwoman Maude Barlow said any Canadian move towards "harmonization, collaboration and information-sharing with the Department of Homeland Security" to promote trade would raise sovereignty and privacy concerns.
Beatty remains confident a deal can be reached.
"We needn't have complete harmonization," he said. "Where we differ from Europe is we're not looking at dismantling the border between Canada and the U.S. and having the mobility that there is in Europe, but rather having a border that's more efficient and more transparent to legitimate travellers and cargo."