The Canada-US Border Deal: How the U.S. blackmailed Canada

Finally, the stars aligned and after a 10-year effort there is consensus with the Americans on what might be done to ease border restrictions. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama announced Wednesday a plan establishing an agenda for improvements to cross-border goods and services traffic. In exchange, Canada will provide the United States with personal information on millions of Canadians and become part of a North American security zone.

Fundamentally, the consensus signals Canada signing on to the American-centric view of the world on security matters. In the process, Canadian security institutions will be more closely integrated with those of the United States.

The Feb. 4, 2011, meeting between Harper and Obama produced a “Declaration,” an intent document on “a shared vision for perimeter security and economic competitiveness.” This week’s meeting produced an “Announcement” on the same subject. It should be emphasized that these are not formal treaties or even formal agreements, although there could be greater formality in the future. They are expressions of hope.

Nowhere in the documentation resulting from the two meetings are there suggestions the people of Canada will be provided with detailed information on which judgments can be made on the wisdom of this consensual agreement negotiated in the backrooms of both capitals.

Instead, Canadians are given a large dose of bromide with the statement both countries will work “together in co-operation and partnership”; suggesting, at least for the government of Canada, that the troublesome details implicit in the agreement will be hidden behind the wall of national security. Equally, as a sign for our future, the consensus will not include issues such as “buy American” laws or the building of pipelines nor the willingness of the United States to act unilaterally when its interests are under stress.

The need for such an agreement grew out of the policy mistakes of the United States in the aftermath of 9/11 when the border was closed for several days and the implementation of border security measures which, at their heart, suggested Canada was the source of danger to the United States.

The 1988 and 1992 free trade agreements which, in the words of the American negotiator at the time, would “open the doors between Canada and the United States” with “awesome” economic benefits as we move into the next century were less than prophetic.

Throughout the 10 years since 9/11 there has been a drum roll of comments by American leaders that Canada represents an existential threat – a threat that needed to be countered by tough American measures including the arming and hardening of the border. Only last May, in congressional testimony, the American commissioner for Customs and Border Protection stated that there were more persons “suspected of alliances with terrorist organizations, or have had a terrorist suspicion in their background – crossing over from Canada than we have from Mexico.”

The earlier bilateral Smart Border Accord, its associated Action Plan and the trilateral Security and Prosperity Partnership for North America in 2005 were all touted as mechanisms to improve border security while at the same time freeing the forces of economic competitiveness. They all failed miserably and the failure was again reflected by unilateral American action to limit and control cross border travel through the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. Again these unilateral American restrictions on travel will not be altered by the Beyond the Border consensus.

These long-running train wrecks had little effect on the United States. Instead, the American-centric trade community in Canada accepted the drum beat out of Washington that “security trumps trade.” It was that acceptance by the government of Canada that led to the Beyond the Border approach in the hope that it would neutralize American concerns on security. In the announcement Wednesday, Canada sold its national security independence in exchange for hoped-for minor changes to American border restrictions.

It is not an overstatement to suggest the United States blackmailed the government of Canada into making this deal. It was the American way or no way. Reducing restrictions for Canadian exports to the United States holds little political value for the Obama administration in the fervour of an election year nor can there be much hope that the environment will be much better after November 2012.

The lesson for Canada is that it should not be lured into negotiations of large comprehensive agreements which include unrelated matters. History has demonstrated that Canada is more successful in negotiations with the United States when disagreements are narrowed and offsets in unrelated areas avoided. The Beyond the Border initiative is so large and so nebulous that neither the security of Canada nor its access to American markets will be helped. Like the Maginot Line of old it provides a temporal sense of success. It offers nothing for a rapidly changing future.

Gar Pardy is a retired Canadian diplomat.  He was director general of consular affairs.  

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