Border the big issue as a Trump official finally set to visit Ottawa: Chris Hall

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly is coming to Ottawa on Friday, the first member of President Donald Trump's inner circle to accept an invitation to head north for meetings with his Canadian counterparts. They plan to make the most of it.

Homeland Security secretary and Canadian ministers expected to discuss flow of asylum seekers from the U.S.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly will visit Ottawa on Friday. He'll be the first of Donald Trump's inner circle to make the trip. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Finally. A return visit.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly is coming to Ottawa on Friday, the first member of President Donald Trump's inner circle to accept an invitation to head north for meetings with his Canadian counterparts.

That might not sound like a big deal, but it is.

For weeks now, Canadian politicians have trekked south to meet members of the U.S. cabinet and Congress, each visit built around the singular purpose of reminding, convincing and cajoling the Americans into understanding that the economic relationship between the two countries supports jobs and investment on both sides of the border.

Canada, they say, is more than just a neighbour. It's a partner and valued friend.

Work to be done

But as hospitable as the president and his colleagues have been during those visits, more work needs to be done. That's why this first visit by John Kelly, the retired marine corps general whom Trump put in charge of the national security file, is so important.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a cordial first meeting at the White House back in February. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

American governments tend to view Canada-U.S. relations through a different lens. Their concern is, and remains, national security and the nagging suspicion that Canada represents a risk to the American homeland. The argument goes something like this: Canada's refugee policies are too generous and its border security too lax.

It's not just a Republican view. Barack Obama's former Homeland Security secretary, Janet Napolitano, suggested in 2009 that the Sept. 11 attackers came through Canada. They hadn't.

Border issues

Canadian officials say Kelly knows Canada well because of his time in the U.S. military. And they're happy to have him sitting at their table to discuss a wide range of cross-border issues.

"It's maintaining the dialogue," said Andrew Leslie, a retired general himself who knows Kelly and who's been to Washington four times as the prime minister's point man for Canada-U.S. relations.

"We have been down there. It's a good sign that he's now coming to talk to us."

A good sign because the Trudeau government has its own border concerns to highlight during the visit, beginning with the ongoing flow of asylum seekers from the U.S.

Canadian officials are eager to speak with Kelly about the flow of asylum seekers crossing the border from the U.S. (CBC)

Just this week, 19 people had to be rescued by Canadian authorities trying to cross the border in a frightful winter storm near Emerson, Man.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says he intends to raise the issue with Kelly, in large part because these mass crossings appear to be orchestrated.

"One question I would have is who organised this movement and did they actually contemplate letting people off on a roadside in the middle of a Prairie blizzard?" Goodale said Wednesday. "We'll want to explore the factors that lead to that kind of risky behaviour."

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says he plans to raise the issue of people carrying valid Canadian passports being turned away at the U.S. border. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Goodale will also be looking for answers to why people carrying valid Canadian passports are being turned away at the U.S. border.

"I've already mentioned this to the secretary and it's a topic we will further examine when we have a chance to discuss it right across the table from each other," he said. "The treatment at the border is an important thing. Canadians have the right to expect that they will be treated in a fair and respectful manner just as people travelling in the opposite direction have the right to expect."

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen says he isn't convinced the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement is the reason so many asylum seekers are risking their well-being by crossing the border into Canada illegally. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Kelly is also slated to sit down with Immigration and Refugees Minister Ahmed Hussen, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Transport Minister Marc Garneau. He'll also attend the cabinet committee Garneau chairs, which was created to handle Canada's most important bilateral relationship.

Hussen told reporters he's also spoken to Kelly on the phone.

"My job is to continue our conversation around immigration. What we have in common in terms of giving people access to fair hearings in the asylum process and making sure that we maintain our robust asylum system."

Risking life and limb

New Democrats are pressing the government to suspend the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement. The law says that anyone who arrives at an official border crossing must make an asylum claim in the country where they first arrived. Critics say that's why so many people are now risking life and limb crossing into Canada illegally.

Razak Iyal lost all his fingers and a thumb to frostbite after walking across the Canada-U.S. border into Manitoba. (CBC News)

Hussen says he's unconvinced the agreement is the problem.

"We've been saying all along that our analysis shows that the domestic asylum system in the United States meets and complies with international standards," he told reporters on Wednesday.

"The [UN Refugee Agency] is now in agreement with us on the same point, so the Safe Third Country Agreement is fine with respect to both countries and that people seeking asylum in the U.S. continue to have fair access to hearings and due process."

Even so, there's no shortage of cross-border issues to discuss. Kelly's time in Ottawa will be short. His Canadian hosts are prepared to make the most of it.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.


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