OTTAWA – Canada has got the ball rolling on launching formal talks to amend the Safe Third Country Agreement, according to Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair.
In an interview with Evan Solomon, host of CTV's Question Period, Blair said he has sent a letter to United States Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen asking to start their discussions about how to change the more-than-decade-old agreement to better address the issues at the Canada-U.S. border.
Calls to renegotiate the agreement have come from both the NDP and Conservatives in the wake of a steady flow of asylum seekers coming into Canada from the U.S. over the last few years.
"I've written to Secretary Nielsen… telling her we would like to engage with them in a conversation on how we can improve and enhance the Safe Third Country Agreement. We’re dealing with changing circumstances," Blair said.
Blair, when appointed to the new ministerial position in July, was asked to lead conversations with the aim of improving the legislation in ways that would, as Blair said in the interview, help “regularize” the rate of, and where, people are entering into Canada.
Under the current agreement, refugee claimants have to apply for asylum in the first country they arrive in, if they arrive at Canada-U.S. border crossings, with some exceptions. What's been happening is claimants have been getting around being turned away on the basis of this agreement, by coming into Canada at unofficial ports of entry and making asylum claims in Canada.
Some critics have said that this so-called loophole needs to be closed, while others argue that the United States should no longer be considered a safe country, citing its pivot on immigration policy under President Donald Trump, which has included ending a program that offered immigrants from several countries temporary protected status, and separating immigrant parents and children at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Blair said he has already heard back from Nielsen, but would not comment on what her response was about the talks, though Blair said he has “every indication that that conversation will now take place between our senior officials and between myself and the secretary.”
"The change in global circumstances and some things that have happened on both sides of our border really do necessitate that we continue to look at that agreement to make sure that it is serving the interests, the mutual interests of both countries, and so we are prepared and I've asked to enter in to that discussion and that’s important."
'May be exceptions' to smooth border crossing
On another border issue, Blair stated that despite U.S. border officials pledging not to change how they handle Canadians crossing the border once marijuana becomes legal in less than a month, "there may be exceptions" who experience issues getting across based on their occupations or connections to the cannabis industry.
"I remain confident that although there may be exceptions -- and I appreciate and I do understand the anxiety that Canadians are experiencing -- but quite frankly I think we can learn from our experience," Blair said.
"The Americans have been very explicit with us that they are not changing the way in which they’re going to manage their border, and I have every expectation that border security officers on both sides of that border will do their jobs properly."