Canada-U.S. $1B border deal held up by scheduling, politics

A Canada-U.S. plan for a security perimeter is almost ready to go except for one issue: finding time to announce it. But some details have already been released by sources who say the plan could carry a $1-billion price tag for new border facilities and programs to make trade and travel easier.

A Canada-U.S. plan to establish a security perimeter is almost ready to go, but it's held back by one issue: finding a time to announce it.

Details from the plan are emerging from sources who say Canada may need to budget for a $1-billion price tag for new border facilities and programs to make trade and travel easier.

CBC News has learned that the most contentious issues, such as immigration, refugee standards and the harmonization of some security measures, have been stripped out of the agreement.

The goal was to unveil the Beyond the Borders plan in the summer — but with the leaves changing colour and a chill in the air, there's still no announcement.

Canadian officials are heading to Washington this weekend to make a final pitch for a public signing ceremony. Officials from the two countries have been conducting high-level talks on the so-called perimeter security deal since February.

A spokesperson for the prime minister's office would only say Wednesday that "a final deal has not been reached" and "work on the action plan is ongoing."

Scheduling, politics obstacles to announcing deal

But sources on both sides of the border say there are two obstacles to getting U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper together: scheduling and politics.

The reality is leaders of countries tend to be rather busy and getting them together can be tricky.

According to sources familiar with the negotiations, the U.S. had proposed announcing the deal last month in New York.

That plan would have seen the two leaders meet quickly on the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly.

But sources tell CBC News that Canada rejected the proposal because the Conservative government wanted a "dedicated' event.

Officials from both sides continue to look for another time and place for the announcement, preferably in a border town.

The backup plan, according to U.S. sources, is for the two leaders to get together either before or after the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation Summit taking place in Hawaii in November.

But U.S. politics are also making the task more difficult. U.S. sources say the president is in pre-election mode and getting him to take a day out for this announcement will be difficult.

As well, the American Jobs Act, Obama's plan released last month to kickstart the U.S. economy and avoid another recession, contains a controversial "Buy American" clause.

Observers say the protectionist move risks raining on the parade of any announcement meant to further economic ties between the two countries.

Speculation is rampant among political observers of all stripes that Obama's American Jobs Act will never pass in the politically charged atmosphere in the lead-up to next year's presidential election.

Once dead, any questions about the bill and the Buy American clause would be largely moot.

Common set of customs requirements

Both countries approach customs issues differently. The type of information that companies must provide to clear customs varies in Canada and the U.S. Therefore, a common set of customs requirements is being viewed as a big step forward.

Measures under discussion include:

  • A "one-stop shopping" window for importers who now have to deal with up to half a dozen government agencies.
  • Less paperwork for companies that could receive duty-free treatment for shipments but currently don't bother because of the hassle.
  • Special visas for certain business travellers and more emphasis on frequent-traveller and trusted-shipper programs.
  • Detailed benchmarks that will bring each country's food and auto industries in line.
  • Synchronized planning at land border-crossings, where there is now little international co-ordination. "The U.S. is expanding in some areas that the Canadians are shrinking, and the Canadians are expanding in some areas where the U.S. is shrinking," said a source. "There's going to be an effort to co-ordinate on that."

This will require Canada to make new, potentially expensive investments in screening and security technologies to keep pace with the Americans. The two countries will have to come up with a joint plan for future spending.

An eventual deal is not expected to include full-scale harmonization of immigration and refugee policies — a possibility that has raised the hackles of critics who fear the deal will cede Canadian sovereignty to the Americans.

The Beyond the Border action plan will include some three dozen items the governments plan to pursue together. A number could be in place within months while others would take as long as four or five years to implement.

Harper has placed strong emphasis on "the things that can be done quickly" — picking the "low-hanging fruit" as opposed to a broad, sweeping agreement that addresses every possible border issue, said one person who was briefed on the plans.

Earlier this week, interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae criticized the Conservatives for continuing to pursue the border deal even though Obama's new job creation plan contained "Buy American" protectionist measures.

"I still think there's a contradiction," Rae said Wednesday after learning the deal is going ahead.

He said Americans are, on the one hand, telling Canadian officials they want to be integrated at the border and want fewer barriers, but "you stil have this underlying protectionism." 

With files from The Canadian Press