Canada, U.S. announce new agreement on customs clearance
Michelle Zilio, CTVNews.ca
Published Monday, March 16, 2015 4:34AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, April 6, 2015 10:18AM EDT
Canadians travelling to the United States will eventually be able to get pre-clearance from U.S. customs agents before they cross the border, helping to ease lines at busy border crossings.
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced the new agreement at a press conference in Washington Monday.
The agreement will provide a legal framework allowing new pre-clearance options for land, rail, marine and air travellers.
“Pre-clearance means that border officers from the inspecting country carry out customs and immigration inspections in the host country before allowing goods or people into the inspecting country," said Blaney.
"For example, Canadian passengers and their luggage could be pre-cleared in Canada before they board on a U.S.-bound plane, train, bus or boat."
Johnson called the agreement a "win-win" for Canada and the U.S.
"We have today signed one of the most significant, visible and anticipated products of the Beyond the Border initiative," said Johnson.
When it enters into force, the new agreement will replace the existing air transport agreement, signed in 2001. The single agreement would ensure a "consistent approach to all pre-clearance activities, regardless of the mode of transportation, making it easier to implement and govern preclearance activities in both countries," according to a statement from Blaney's office.
A pre-clearance customs arrangement already exists for air travel at eight Canadian airports - Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg - allowing pre-cleared travellers to skip customs lines in U.S. airports when they arrive.
Canada and the U.S. have been negotiating an agreement for years now. It will ease wait times and lines at major border crossings. The arrangement is part of the 2011 Beyond the Border deal reached between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama.
Officials missed their original, late-2012 deadline for an agreement meant to allow customs officials inside each other's countries.
Truckers welcome agreement
The Canadian Trucking Alliance welcomed the agreement Monday. CEO David Bradley said it will help alleviate border congestion for truck drivers, which is a huge problem.
"Trucks operate as moving warehouses these days and so if we miss our appointment windows at an assembly line … you shut down the entire assembly line. So the reverberations across the supply chain, across the economy, both in Canada and the United States, are significant.”
Bradley said the new agreement could "redefine border crossings" for truckers, helping to move the flow of traffic. He said pilot project is already in place at the Buffalo border crossing, where U.S. customs officers have been inspecting trucks on the Canadian side, but still doing the final clearance in the U.S. The new agreement, once implemented, would take away that second check on the U.S. side, easing up wait times.
For the Alliance, the next step is to push the border right back to the warehouses, so truckers don't have to go through a separate pre-clearance facility at all. But Bradley acknowledged that will take some time.
New challenges arise
There are still many questions about when and how the plan will be implemented.
Johnson and Blaney said both governments will have to pass legislation to ratify the agreement. The minister's office said the legislation that would ratify the agreement in Canada will be tabled in the coming days or next week. Blaney’s office said they are expecting the ratification process to be completed sometime in 2016.
In terms of implementation, Blaney said pre-clearance will work on land the same way it works in airports.
"(On) Canadian soil, a U.S. customs officer will pre-clear these individuals so that once they are in United States lands, they wouldn't have to go to the border again," said Blaney.
Johnson added that plans for land pre-clearance will be made site by site.
"There's going to be some negotiation that goes with each site, unique to each site. And so when you're talking about land borders … it's unique and distinct from an airport or a maritime port," said Johnson.
Speaking on CTV’s Power Play on Monday, Blaney said he expected Canada to see “more savings” than expenses as a result of the agreement.
“We see it more in terms of streamlining our resources and being able to optimize the resources, so in the long term, I see savings,” Blaney said.
In 2011, privacy concerns were raised regarding the legal framework and the increased sharing of information between Canada and the U.S.
Blaney’s office said in keeping with current preclearance operations in Canadian airports, “U.S. CBP preclearance officers would have the authority to collect information from travellers for the purpose of administering U.S. laws.”
The same would apply to CBSA officers working in the U.S., and any information sharing would be subject to the Beyond the Border Action Plan Privacy Principles, Blaney’s office said.
NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison told CTV News that while his party welcomes anything that improves trade, the "devil is always in the details" with the Conservative government. He raised particular concern about the presence of U.S. customs officers – and their weapons -- in Canada.
"We've had trouble at pre-clearance centres in the airport with the enforcement of U.S. law on Canadian soil. We’ve had concerns about U.S. officials carrying arms in Canada. So we'll have to look and see how those things are impacted in this agreement," said Garrison.
Garrison also questioned who will fund the new pre-clearance centres.
"I want to make sure we're not getting the short end of the stick in this deal again," said Garrison.
Addressing decline in land travel
The change is meant to open the border to legitimate travelers following a decline in land travel after the 9/11 terrorist attacks affected border rules.
According to data from the U.S. Bureau on Travel Statistics, 34 per cent fewer vehicle passengers entered the U.S. in 2014 from the northern border, compared to the year 2000. The biggest drops occurred between 2001 and 2003.
The Beyond the Border agreement is meant to build a long-term partnership to "enhance our security and accelerate the legitimate flow of people, goods and services," according to the Government of Canada's website.
More than 400,000 people and $2 billion in goods and services cross the Canada-U.S. land border every day, according to a statement from Blaney's office.
With files from The Canadian Press