Talk of security perimeter hits nerve

The secret government documents had barely leaked into the media this week before the political howling started over the latest plan to fix what ails an increasingly clogged Canada-U.S. border.
A U.S. Customs officer checks a driver's documentation at the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit. Documents indicate the U.S. and Canada will sign a deal in January to 'pursue a perimeter approach to security.' ((Paul Sancya/Associated Press))

The secret government documents had barely leaked into the media this week before the political howling started over the latest plan to fix what ails an increasingly clogged Canada-U.S. border.

The documents describe a plan to improve the flow of people and goods across the border between the two countries by creating a continental security perimeter around them.

Even in the fear-filled days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the words "security perimeter" touched off ferocious political debate in this country.

In fact, accusations that Canada was ceding sovereignty to Uncle Sam sent the Liberal government of the day into full and hasty retreat from the whole concept.

Nine years later, with the Conservatives in power, the mention of continental security still hits a political nerve as hyper-nationalists and opposition parties pounded Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government this week over the leaked documents.

Details scarce

So far, it is all much ado about not much detail.

According to one of the documents, Prime Minister Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama will sign a deal in January "to pursue a perimeter approach to security, working together within, at, and away from the borders of our two countries."

Prime Minister Harper is working with U.S. President Barack Obama on a perimeter deal. ((Graham Hughes/Canadian Press))

A draft declaration by the two leaders states: "We intend to address threats at the earliest point possible, including outside the perimeter of our two countries."

But there is little in the documents to suggest the two countries are anywhere close to figuring out exactly how they will lighten security at the border by increasing it around the perimeter of the continent.

While the draft declaration of the two leaders is filled with the best of intentions, that is all they are — intentions.

For example: "We intend to work together in co-operation and partnership to develop, implement, manage, and monitor security initiatives, standards and practices to fulfil our vision."

"We intend to pursue creative and effective solutions to manage the flow of traffic between Canada and the United States."

And so on.

Some of the proposed initiatives are common sense.

The plan, for instance, talks about investing in modern technology and infrastructure at international cargo ports.

The two countries would also like to expand existing "trusted traveler programs" that provide express passes for those who frequently cross the border and are willing to submit to special up-front security checks.

The scheme contemplates "shared border infrastructure where appropriate" that would allow, say, American Customs clearance of cargo arriving in Canada bound for the U.S., to avoid having to clear it a second time at the American border.

All of which has been in the works for years, and even the most vociferous critics would be hard-pressed to argue any of it is ceding Canada's sovereignty to the Americans.

Security sharing of concern

But the plan does include proposals that the Canadian government concedes are likely to touch off public controversy — and with good reason.

One highly classified government document obtained by CBC's Rosemary Barton describes various political and communications issues connected with the perimeter security plan. It warns the "safeguarding of privacy and sovereignty will be of concern to Canadians."

No kidding. Security information-sharing with the Americans has had a bad name since U.S. agents used erroneous RCMP data to grab Canadian engineer Maher Arar as a suspected terrorist and shipped him off to Syria for a year of torture.

The government documents leaked this week also caution that the perimeter security proposals would likely invoke the wrath of refugee and immigration agencies claiming the plan would "somehow limit immigration."

That might help to explain why there is no mention of immigration anywhere else in the documents, even though it is one aspect of Canadian security that the Americans would probably most like to change.

Since 2001, Canada has been battling the false image of being overrun with potentially dangerous refugees without security checks, and generally a terrorist haven from which the 9/11 attacks were launched.

It doesn't help that two of the many prominent Americans who have propagated the myth of Canada as a home to terrorists are the current U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and her cabinet colleague, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

It also doesn't help that some of the U.S. concerns are legitimate.

Refugee program fraught with problems

Canada's refugee program has long been fraught with security problems, such as the government's losing track of more than 35,000 failed claimants ordered deported, and who have simply disappeared.

On the other hand, the U.S. has an even larger problem identifying 10.6 million illegal immigrants currently living in America.

At the end of the day, the proposed plan for a fortress North America is probably more about bringing some political urgency to growing border problems than it is a radical way to solve them.

The last major border program, called the Security and Prosperity Partnership, was launched in 2005 by the respective governments of Paul Martin and George W. Bush, and is now all but dead.

The leaked documents suggest Harper and Obama would like to launch their own version of a border plan, even if it is actually just more of what is already happening.

Clearly, with more than $1 billion a day in bilateral trade just across the Windsor-Detroit bridge alone, the two leaders know neither country can afford to do nothing.