Border talks 'not about sovereignty:' Harper

A new Canada-U.S. agreement on border security won't jeopardize Canadian sovereignty, Prime Minister Stephen Harper says while meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington.

Canada and U.S. match up better than any countries on Earth: Obama

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama shake hands at a joint news conference in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building after their meeting at the White House Friday. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

A new Canada-U.S. agreement on border security won't jeopardize Canadian sovereignty, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday in Washington.

At the end of meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama, Harper said Canada's sovereignty isn't in question. "Our objective here is to make sure Canadians are safer and more secure."

His comments came after he and Obama signed a deal that will lead to the two countries co-operating on ways to use technology to design a smarter border that remains open to trade and economic growth, but closed to security risks.

In announcing a joint declaration on the border, Obama said he and Harper "agreed to a new vision for managing our shared responsibilities, not just at the border but beyond the border."

The president pointed to three initiatives:

  • Better border security using better screening, new technologies, and information sharing among law-enforcement agencies. That also means ensuring a free flow of goods and people, keeping in mind the president's goal of doubling U.S. exports.
  • Creation of a new council to sweep away outdated regulations that stifle trade and job creation.
  • Unspecified ways "to promote trade and investment from clean energy partnerships [and] the steps Canada can take to strengthen intellectual property rights."

Harper touched on sovereignty several times at the post-meeting press conference. "We are not talking about eliminating the border," he said, "but rather simplifying wherever possible the management of the border as well as the free flow of people and goods across that border."

In Ottawa, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff decried the lack of specifics.

"Canadians want to travel freely across the border," he said, "but the question is, how much information about ourselves are we being asked to surrender to American authorities? No one can tell us. This is why the secrecy of this deal is troubling."

For his part, Obama sounded optimistic about the possibilities of improving the way the Canada-U.S. border is managed.

Obama: optimistic about the possibilities. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

"Obviously Canada and the United States are not going to match up perfectly on every measure with respect to how we balance security issues, privacy issues, openness issues," he said. "But we match up more than probably any country on Earth."

Canadian officials have long been concerned that enhanced security after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States would hinder the flow of daily trade between the two countries along the border.

The issue has raised concerns over sovereignty, privacy, and how much information Canada is willing to share with the U.S.

"They want as much as we can give them, and we're not going to give them as much as they want," Colin Robertson, the former Canadian diplomat who has been consulting with the Harper government on the issue, told The Canadian Press.

"Homeland Security wanted access to all migration records and a whole bunch of other stuff. We said no," Robertson said.

In the House of Commons on Friday, opposition MPs accused the government of keeping the perimeter security negotiations under wraps.

"Today in Washington, the prime minister is continuing a pattern of talking to American officials about a perimeter security deal he won't even admit exists," Liberal MP Brian Murphy said.

'We are not talking about eliminating the border,' Prime Minister Stephen Harper says. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

"Why won't the Conservatives tell us about this deal? Is it because every other time they've negotiated with the Americans on softwood lumber, on 'Buy America,' on $16-billion fighter jets, Canadians have gotten a bad deal?"

Government House leader John Baird replied, "[Conservatives] will always put Canada's interests first .… That means keeping our shared border open to trade, open to investment, and closed to security and terrorist threats."

Bloc Québécois MP Pierre Paquette called a security perimeter deal "desirable," but asked why the government would move so quickly with the White House when "neither parliamentarians nor the population have had any access to any information whatsoever regarding this debate."

'A little democracy'

The NDP has been pushing for a Commons debate on the issue.

"All we're asking for is a little democracy," NDP MP Paul Dewar said in question period. "[Harper] hasn't informed Canadians what he's up to and he hasn't consulted this House."

The issue has been a hot political topic since a U.S. government watchdog called Canada-U.S. border security "unacceptably ineffective" in a report released on Tuesday. Later that day, PMO spokesman Dimitri Soudas announced that Harper would be travelling to the U.S. to meet with Obama.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff then accused Harper of "talking with President Obama about things he's not prepared to talk to Canadians about."

Robertson told The Canadian Press the government should be keeping other parliamentarians and politicians in the loop.

"Concerns over privacy, standards and sovereignty need to be assuaged and the case made for how the initiative serves the national interest," he wrote in a forthcoming report for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and the Canadian International Council. "Mr. Harper needs to confide in Mr. Ignatieff and the premiers."

Since the release of the U.S. government watchdog's report, opposition MPs have accused the government of not doing enough to stand up to the U.S.

"Every deal this prime minister has made has led to a thicker border, not a thinner one," NDP MP Brian Masse said. "American politicians continue to slag Canadians as terrorists and they go uncontested every single day."

And on Wednesday, Liberal MP Martha Hall Findlay accused the government of "negotiating a secret agreement with the U.S. on the border" while Joe Lieberman, one of two prominent U.S. senators who called for greater co-ordination of U.S. and Canadian security agencies in the wake of the report, "dragged our national reputation through the mud."

International Trade Minister Peter Van Loan said he expects the talks to be productive and that the government knows what it's doing.

"We have a very positive relationship with the Obama administration," Van Loan told The Canadian Press. "We have the same risks in common, but we also have the same interest in keeping our economies and our trading relationship moving forward positively."

With files from The Canadian Press