AUDIO: U.S.-Canada border needs more action, Tom Ridge says

Former U.S. homeland security secretary Tom Ridge tells CBC Radio's The House that although security threats remain, more must be done to move goods and services efficiently across the Canada-U.S border.
Former American homeland security secretary Tom Ridge, left, shakes hands with former deputy prime minister John Manley, right, after signing the Canada-U.S. 'Smart Border Declaration' at Niagara Falls in June 2002. (J.P. Moczulski/Canadian Press)

Former U.S. president George W. Bush's homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge, says he believes Canada and the United States have learned the right lessons from the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy.

Speaking with guest host Susan Lunn on Saturday morning's edition of The House on CBC Radio, Ridge praised recent efforts to refocus attention on the Canada-U.S. border after a period where attempts to streamline the movement of goods and services "kind of floundered."

"Well-intentioned government officials occasionally need sustained pressure by the economic interests on both sides," Ridge said. "Inertia sets in from time to time."

Ridge worked very closely with former foreign affairs minister and deputy prime minister John Manley on the original "smart border" initiative between the two countries in the aftermath of 9/11. He said it arose from a conversation he had with President Bush following a briefing in the Oval Office.

He "basically said we had done a very good job at the borders, particularly the northern border right after 9/11 from a security perspective, but in many areas we had brought commerce to a screeching halt," Ridge recalled. "And he said we really need to find a balance between our security interest and our economic interest."

Ridge cited progress at the border posts between Detroit and Windsor, Ont., as evidence that border crossings have become more efficient since then.

"The co-ordination between [our] two countries is as good as you get internationally," Ridge asserted. "I still don't think we've done as much as we could have."  

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama are expected to make border issues the focus of their upcoming meeting this fall. Negotiations are underway toward a joint "security perimeter" agreement that could bring jointly managed border facilities, more intelligence sharing between Canadian and U.S. agencies, and a co-ordinated system for entering or exiting both countries.

That kind of co-ordination has more than a few people worried, however, since in the past it has involved sharing such information as people's private health data with U.S. border authorities, as a Toronto woman discovered last fall.  

Power & Politics: The War Room

In Friday's podcast, former public safety minister Stockwell Day said that the Canada-U.S. border is "tighter and stronger than it was before."

Still, Ridge said he hopes for some new kind of action in the wake of the Harper-Obama conference. "Absent that, [it's] another plan, another report that will simply gather dust," he said.

Ridge also spoke about the need for sustained attention to security issues, suggesting the border is where "your security interest and economic interest intersect."

"9/11 did not make us more vulnerable. It just made [us] aware," Ridge said, citing the more recent shootings at the U.S. army base in Fort Hood, Texas, and the failed bomb plots in Times Square, New York, and aboard a passenger jet bound for Detroit last Christmas as proof that "the new norm is we can become a battlefield."

"We're going to be dealing with the threat of terrorism on America's soil. But we can't be breathless about it. Let's just accept it, and let's just simply manage the risk."