The greatest test of whether the election of President Barack Obama will really repair the strains in Canada-U.S. relations gets under way this month when the secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, comes to visit. The transformation of land border security over the last eight years came to symbolize the tense relations between Ottawa and the Bush administration. The almost 9,000 km of friendly frontier, and gateway to $1.6 billion in trade per day, turned into another front in the war on terror, patrolled by now-armed guards and unmanned drones, riddled with new regulations that business complains tie up trade, and as of June 1, a passport requirement for the first time. From the Canadian point of view, it was the work largely of an overzealous American administration and Congress taking a series of unilateral actions. “The previous attitude was that any additional step that could be taken should be taken without regard for trade,” Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan told Maclean’s. Like many Canadians, he hopes that will change under Obama. “Now we want to focus on security that is actually effective, and addresses real security threats—counterterrorism, the drug trade, organized crime, immigration issues—and we want to find ways to improve the flow of goods across the border.”
But from the U.S. point of view, the last eight years looked rather different. The world changed on 9/11, and Americans and Canadians reacted with what Paul Rosenzweig, a former senior Department of Homeland Security official who worked on border issues under George W. Bush, diplomatically refers to as “a different sense of urgency.” He suspects Ottawa and Washington will find it just as difficult to resolve their differences under Obama as they did under Bush. “One of the things I’ve learned is that there is this myth that Canadians and Americans are a lot alike in how they view things like trade and terrorism,” Rosenzweig said in an interview. “And they simply are not.” Where Canadians saw U.S. unilateralism, Americans saw Canadian complacency. On both sides, there was an erosion of trust. Can it be rebuilt? “My advice to Secretary Napolitano,” says Rosenzweig, “would be to explore how much of our inability to achieve common objectives with Canada was the product of political issues relating to the Bush administration—and how much of it was fundamental.”
Over those eight years, officials, analysts, and business groups in both countries have long talked about moving security efforts away from land border checkpoints to trusting each other to protect the outer edges of North America, known as “perimeter security” or “synchronization.” But for all the talk, the border has grown ever “thicker,” and problems have been tackled episodically. Early indications are that the situation is unlikely to change. Van Loan, who met with Napolitano on March 18 in Washington, has modest expectations. “There is no overly ambitious grand plan because that simply would not fly right now,” he says. “If one wanted to do a perimeter approach I don’t think there is any appetite for that on the American side. We are looking to make incremental efficiency gains that would not compromise security. We are trying to find ways to make the border work better.”
Rosenzweig, though, argues that the appetite for a North American vision has always been there on the American side—but Canada would not play ball. One case in point, he says, is the issue of small planes. Nearly three years ago, DHS identified “general aviation”—the movement of small, private jets around the world—as a grave threat. The theory was that if Osama bin Laden got hold of a nuclear weapon, it would be far too valuable to stuff into a shipping container and load onto a ship over which he would lose control for weeks as it crossed the seas, vulnerable to detection, bad weather, or even piracy. A more logical step, DHS reasoned, would be to load the lethal cargo onto a private plane piloted by a suicidal recruit, and, for example, file a flight plan for JFK airport, then swerve over Manhattan en route.
With this grim scenario in mind, the officials were disturbed to see that few of the controls in place for commercial airlines existed for private planes. And there was no radiological screening of such planes or their cargo, nor a security check of pilots. They proposed creating a constellation of screening points for small planes. Those approaching the U.S. from Europe and the Middle East would stop for refuelling and screening in Shannon, Ireland. Other screening points would be located in Bermuda and in Aruba. Seeking to preserve unfettered passage between Canada and the U.S. (and reasoning that once in North America it would be unlikely that a plane could pick up nuclear cargo in Canada), Rosenzweig, with then-DHS chief Michael Chertoff’s blessing, approached Canadian officials about participating. The Americans would provide the radiological equipment. Canada would supply a few customs agents to clear the flights for passage to Canada. The Irish, Bermudans and Arubans got the opportunity to sell champagne and Chanel to the jet-setters who passed through. “It was win-win-win all around,” he says.
The Canadian reaction was tepid, Rosenzweig says. Officials expressed interest, but ministers changed and no decisions were taken. Now, three years later, the facilities are being built without Canadian participation. Eventually, DHS will have to turn to the question of what to do about small plane flights from Canada, potentially throwing up yet another layer of security within North America.
Perhaps nothing embodies the difference in views as much as the passport rule that takes effect on June 1. From the Canadian perspective, Canada was blindsided by the new stipulation, under which adults entering the U.S. must produce a passport or “enhanced” document. It’s true that the WHTI (Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative) was stuck into a lengthy intelligence reform bill in 2004 without prior notice, also surprising many members of Congress from border states who, like officials at the Canadian Embassy, warned of disruptions to tourism, trade and the lifestyle of border communities. But perhaps it should not have come as such a surprise. The end of passport-free travel within North America was explicitly recommended on page 388 of the bipartisan 9/11 commission report that came out in July 2004. And at DHS, it was a no-brainer. The spectacle of border officials examining many different kinds of documents—from drivers’ licences to birth certificates and even baptismal documents—seemed to belong to an earlier, more innocent age.
But Canadian officials were concerned that the costs of outfitting American and Canadian families with passports would devastate cross-border tourism—and worried over what the potential confusion and confrontation over the new rule would do to wait times at the border. Michael Wilson, Canada’s ambassador, along with border state lawmakers, agitated hard to have the implementation deadline delayed until June 1. The sight of a Canadian ambassador aggressively lobbying against a rule change struck some at DHS as inappropriate—the kind of thing that would have raised howls of outrage if the situation had been reversed. The Americans also thought Canadians should have accepted the new reality much sooner and been more creative in finding a more workable solution, at the very least leaping on the idea of security-enhanced drivers’ licences such as those issued by B.C. and a handful of border states.
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