A new perimeter security and trade agreement between Canada and the U.S. aims to make everything from travel to cross-border business easier, co-ordinating regulations to cut red tape that the government estimates costs the economy $16 billion a year.

But in exchange for changes Prime Minister Stephen Harper hopes will smooth trade to Canada's biggest and most important partner, officials have negotiated information-sharing to ease Americans’ security concerns.

The government argues Canada loses no sovereignty in the agreement: both countries retain the power to allow people and products into and out of the country.

It will take months before people see the results of the agreement, but pilot projects will start as soon as April 2012.

"These agreements represent the most significant step forward in Canada-U.S. co-operation since the North American Free Trade Agreement," Harper said in a statement Wednesday before a press conference in Washington, D.C. with U.S. President Barack Obama to announce the new "action plan."

Obama told reporters Canada is key to his plan to grow the U.S. economy, and he implored Canadians to travel to America and spend money there. And he noted the border security deal strikes a better balance by dealing with regulations that didn't need to be duplicated.

Harper said the two countries are already co-operating closely on security and that will continue.

"Believe me, if we could replicate our relationship anywhere else in the world, the world would be a better place," he said.

The two leaders first announced the Beyond the Border talks in February, leading to months of consultations and discussions on trade and security culminating in Wednesday's announcement, which had been rumoured for weeks.

For travellers and consumers, the Beyond the Border deal should mean:

  • Not having to clear baggage at U.S. airports if it has already been cleared in Canada.
  • Border crossings should move faster, with commercial traffic getting more dedicated lanes and technology to move them through faster.
  • Wait times measured and posted at border crossings.
  • Consumer health products that have already been approved in the U.S. could get faster approval in Canada, with regulatory bodies sharing information and adjusting labelling standards to make it easier to market a product in both countries.

But it will also mean the two countries will share information about who enters and exits the country, and Canada will adopt two U.S. screening measures over the next four years: an electronic travel authorization for visitors who don't need visas to travel to Canada, and a system to deny boarding to inadmissible passengers before they get on a plane.

Canada and the U.S. will also share information about people from other countries — not Canadian or U.S. citizens — denied boarding or entry because of national security concerns.

Officials say it's not yet clear exactly what information will be shared about Canadian and U.S. citizens when they cross the shared border. Currently, no information is shared upon entry or exit.

For business, the plan should eventually mean faster shipment of goods, with less paperwork for low-risk travellers and pre-clearance away from the border. The agreement will expand programs that speed up border crossings for frequent and trusted traders. Cargo will be cleared at its first port of entry, operating under the philosophy of "cleared once, accepted twice," to reduce the time and expense of re-screening. And companies will have a "single window" to submit data required by government for shipments.

The cargo clearance pilot project will start in Montreal and Prince Rupert, B.C., by 2013.

Stakeholders promise to keep up pressure

Perrin Beatty, head of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and a cabinet minister in Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative government, said he wishes Canada hadn't gone through 10 years of a thickening border, but that this is a good deal for Canadians.

Beatty said he's surprised at how measurable the benchmarks are, with the report including clear goals and dates by which they should be in place.

"Pressure from business and from government to move ahead will only grow ... I don't see the appetite for this being rolled back."

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An agent of the Canada Border Services Agency and a trained sniffer dog inspect the carriage of a tractor trailer vehicle entering Canada. An 'action plan' touted by the Canada and U.S. Wednesday aims to reduce duplication of screening at the border. (Eric Foss/CBC)

Jayson Myers, head of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, says he's confident both governments will find money in their budgets for the border technology and infrastructure improvements the action plan mentions.   He says it's key that there be money for them in the next Canadian budget, and says he expects to see some. 

"It is a priority and adequate resources will be made available for those investments," he said.

But interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae says there isn't as much in the agreement as it first appears.

"It's a bunch of pilot projects, it talks about improving co-operation with respect to certain things, but frankly I don't see the kind of changes that are going to be necessary to ensure that we continue to have strong, unharassed access to the U.S. market," Rae said.

Joint investigations to target security threats

Under the agreement, border and law enforcement efforts will be more integrated, starting with a radio system that will work on both sides of the border, all the way up to integrated criminal and intelligence investigations. The two countries will also conduct joint investigations to target security threats and how to prevent them, including dealing with violent extremism.

One of the most talked about aspects of the agreement is the joint entry-exit system at the land border. Officials plan to share biographical information on citizens, permanent residents and others when they enter one country and thereby exit the other. The pilot project is set to start by Sept. 30, 2012, at anywhere between two to four border crossings. The full program is to be in place by June 30, 2014.

Critics, including Canada’s privacy commissioner, have said any information that’s shared must be safeguarded according to Canadian law.

Rae says he's still trying to decipher what the deal could mean for privacy.

"Our police and others [already]

co-operate through Interpol and through relations with the American forces to deal with these questions all the time, so this is much less of a radical change than is being described by the prime minister."

There are also plans to share biometric information of third-country nationals by 2014 to reduce identity fraud, enhance screening and support "other enforcement actions," according to the action plan that sets out the details of the agreement.

The plan also commits the two countries:

  • To set up emergency management plans, with a focus on chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives events, and prepare for major health security threats.
  • To plan guidelines on who and what gets to cross the border first following major emergencies like terrorist attacks or natural disasters.
  • To co-ordinate emergency communications plans.
  • To develop programs to strengthen cross-border critical infrastructure.

Co-ordinating regulations

It’s difficult to measure exactly how much duplicated inspections, slow border crossings and un-aligned regulations cost, but Canadian officials estimate it could be as much as $16 billion a year, or one per cent of GDP.

Canadian and U.S. officials picked out 29 points where the two countries can bring their rules closer together, in health and personal care products, agriculture and food, transportation and the environment. That could mean more products, including therapeutic and over-the-counter treatments, available in Canada because of easier approvals.

Officials are hoping to allow companies to submit electronically one application for product approval with Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as well as to have a common monograph for over-the-counter drugs, and to rely on each other's inspections of drug production facilities.