Former consul general in Detroit questions U.S. position in NEXUS dispute

The recently retired consul general of Canada in Detroit is questioning why the U.S. is exerting pressure on Canada in a dispute involving the NEXUS travel program. 

Joe Comartin retired from his posting at the end of July

'It was the most surprising'

5 months ago
Duration 1:26
Joe Comartin says the Ambassador Bridge blockade was one of the most surprising things that happened during his tenure as consul general in Detroit.

The recently retired consul general of Canada in Detroit is questioning why the U.S. is exerting pressure on Canada in a dispute involving the NEXUS travel program. 

The NEXUS program gives pre-approved and "low-risk" travellers easier entry into Canada or the U.S.

The U.S. shuttered offices that process NEXUS applications during the pandemic, and while they reopened the offices in the U.S. in the spring, they chose to keep Canadian offices closed. 

They are asking that U.S. workers in their Canadian offices receive immunity from prosecution while working in Canada — like diplomats have.

Comartin said while NEXUS has been in place for around 20 years, it's only in the last four years that the U.S. has been pushing for these changes. 

"I really don't understand the pressure coming from them because the system has worked," he said.

"None of their people have been charged with any crimes on the Canadian side, which is what they're looking for in terms of a claim of immunity for those people."

Joe Comartin made the remarks while speaking on CBC Radio's Windsor Morning.

He retired from his posting at the end of July, and Colin Bird became the consul general for Canada in Detroit in September. 

The dispute comes amid a major backlog in the trusted traveller program. This past summer, CBC News reported that the number of people waiting for NEXUS approval was in the hundreds of thousands.

Comartin said the resolution may need to come at the highest levels of government — suggesting talks between the prime minister and president.

"It really is an irritant and from the business community standpoint; it's a real negative in terms of being able to move freely back and forth between our two countries."

Joe Comartin served as MP in the Windsor, Ont., area between 2000 and 2015 before becoming the consul general in Detroit. (Jonathan Pinto/CBC)

He said he recognizes that Canada has granted immunity to airport agents but granting it to those working with the NEXUS program would be involve many more people.

"It's really a question of Canadian sovereignty that's at the Canadian side," he said.

"I just really hope it will resolve itself really quickly but they've really dug their heels in on this one."

The U.S. says it's repeatedly informed Canada for several years that this was a priority. A U.S. Embassy spokesperson in Ottawa said last week that the U.S. "stands ready to reopen NEXUS centres in Canada once Canada addresses these concerns."

Emergencies Act testimony

Comartin is also set to testify at the Emergencies Act Inquiry underway in Ottawa, he said, sometime in November.

The inquiry is looking at the federal government's invocation of the act during anti-vaccine mandate protests in Ottawa and at the Ambassador Bridge in February.

"It will be fairly narrow what I'll be asked about, which is more about what went on in this area Southwestern Ontario and the states of Michigan and Ohio in particular in terms of our interaction with the political people," he said.

He said the protest was among the most surprising situations that arose during his tenure.

"We had not anticipated it at all up until about five days, six days before," he said.

A woman border officer faces a woman passenger at an office in an airport.
A Canada Border Services Agency officer speaks with a traveller at the Nexus office at the airport in Ottawa, Tuesday May 8, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

"We were beginning to get feedback from our intelligence services that a number of the border crossings would be hit and obviously we recognize that Windsor and Sarnia would be major targets because of the amount of traffic." 

On retirement

Comartin, 74, had a 60-year career. He had a law practice in Windsor and also served as the NDP MP for a Windsor-area riding between 2000 and 2015. He became consul general in 2018.

Comartin said he was looking forward to retirement, so the transition away from the position wasn't difficult. 

I feel I've put in my time and I'm going to spend time with family now.​​​​​- Joe Comartin

He said the highlight for him, in all his roles, was interacting with people.

"Whether it was a number of the governors I got to be fairly friendly with, Indiana and Michigan in particular and a number of the other elected officials," he said.

"Also the contacts we were making at my level with a number of the business leaders really on both sides of the border... a lot of interesting people you get to meet."

Comartin said in retirement would be spending most of his time with his seven grandchildren.

"Up to this point, I've avoided requests to take on committee or board appointments and I'm hoping I can continue with that," he said.

"I feel I've put in my time and I'm going to spend time with family now." 

With files from Nav Nanwa and Alexander Panetta


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