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A not very neighbourly arrangement at the U.S. border

Free trade was around the corner, but cross-border commerce didn't seem very frictionless to some Canadian businesses in the middle of 1988.

Ahead of free trade, U.S. customs agents were stepping up scrutiny of U.S.-bound goods in 1988

In June 1988, Canadian businesses were fed up with stepped-up customs enforcement in the U.S. 2:48

Free trade was around the corner, but cross-border commerce didn't seem very frictionless to some Canadian businesses in the middle of 1988.

"Canadian companies that export their goods to the United States have been having some problems lately and the problems are coming at the border," the CBC's Sheldon Turcott told viewers, when introducing a report on The National on June 29, 1988.

"U.S. customs officers are being extra vigilant these days. They're now enforcing the regulations down to the smallest letter of the law."

Reporter Neil Macdonald provided further details on those issues at the border, which were affecting a growing number of Canadian exporters.

Delays, paperwork, strictness about stickers

U.S. customs officers were closely scrutinizing an expanding number of Canadian goods in 1988. (The National/CBC Archives)

"The crackdown has been building for two years, but Canadian officials say it's intensified in the last few months," Macdonald said.

"The Americans have been proceeding one sector at a time — dry goods, furniture, computers and steel have all been targeted. Frustrating delays and paperwork have been the result."

Macdonald said it appeared a protectionist political climate had spurred the enforcement measures, like ensuring Canadian-made products had stickers on them indicating where they had been made.

The high-tech sector was among the sectors being closely monitored at the border.

'One long string of border problems'

In mid-1988, Canada's ATI Technologies was growing frustrated by customs procedures at the U.S. border. (The National/CBC Archives)

Canada's ATI Technologies, which made computer hardware, was getting fed up with what it was having to deal with — and what the strict enforcement efforts had cost the company.

"The last year has been one long string of border problems from U.S. customs and in the past two weeks, important shipments have been seized for examination in Buffalo," Macdonald said.

"As a  result, ATI has missed the deadline to bid for a large Pentagon contract."

Robert Arthur said ATI Technologies had worked hard to claw its way into the marketplaces it sold its products in. (The National/CBC Archives)

Robert Arthur of ATI explained how those same issues were affecting the company's operations more generally.

"All the procedural delays mean that our competition has an opportunity to sell into our marketplaces, our distributors are not getting our product," he told CBC News.

"You know, it took us a long time to get into the position that we're in today. We can lose that position overnight."

Look to the book

Federal Trade Minister John Crosbie expected that the dispute resolution system that would be put in place by free trade would help resolve the kinds of issues companies were finding frustrating to deal with at the U.S. border. (The National/CBC Archives)

John Crosbie, the country's federal trade minister at the time, said Ottawa would do what it could to help Canadian companies that "feel hard done by U.S. customs," as Macdonald put it.

But the minister said the trade dispute mechanism of the forthcoming free trade agreement would soon help solve such problems.

"It'll be a lot easier to handle these matters in the future," Crosbie said.

Macdonald said U.S. customs officials viewed their actions as part of an ongoing effort to increase enforcement generally.

"They say that while Canada is not the main target, it's also not an exception," said Macdonald.

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