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Canada Confronts Border-Control Problem

By Gregory Boyd Bell
Gregory Boyd Bell is a Toronto-based columnist and editor.

November 29, 2001

IN THE aftermath of Sept. 11, the United States has been compelled to examine its international relationships with heightened concern for security.

Perhaps no relationship has been more exposed by this process than that between the United States and Canada. And, as new rules of cooperation between the North American neighbors take shape, they appear likely to hasten the decline of Canada's status as a sovereign nation.

Canada is being offered a Hobson's Choice: Agree to "harmonize" immigration policies and security operations with the United States - or else "the world's longest undefended border" will become the world's longest trade barrier.

Although Canada's military and security standards are tougher than most media personalities and politicians will allow, Canadian political leaders would rather fall in with an American solution than propose their own. They are not just being polite. In calculating its place in the new world order, Canada's government has determined that, if the argument pits jobs against national sovereignty, then trade trumps nationalism.

The result will be a merger of immigration policies and procedures to create a "common security perimeter." This may or may not make North America safer. But it will certainly erase one of the last meaningful ways in which Canada may define itself as a separate country.

Canadian sovereignty has long been guaranteed by its richer, more powerful neighbor. Living in the shadow of America's economic and military power, Canada has since the end of the Cold War pursued what policy-makers dubbed "soft power" - seeking influence through international bodies such as the World Trade Organization and judicial initiatives such as the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Canada's military shrank into smaller, more mobile groups trained in armed relief and monitoring missions suited to United Nations interventions - of which Canada has undertaken more, in proportion to its military and economic status, than any other country.

Along with the pursuit of soft power, Canada adopted a soft border. Would-be immigrants claiming refugee status are legion, and the immigration system (currently under hasty renovation) is notoriously lax in letting bogus refugee claimants remain in the country.

Openness to immigration is one of Canada's defining characteristics - not to mention a key to the reigning Liberal Party's electoral strength. But its weaknesses were dramatically exposed by the case of Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian refugee claimant arrested in 1999 while trying to cross from Canada into the United States in a vehicle loaded with bomb-making materials. Ressam was later convicted of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport.

Canadian law-enforcement officials say they have not found a direct link between Canada and the Sept. 11 attacks. Certainly, Canada played a lesser role as a staging area for al-Qaida than, say, Germany, Pakistan or Florida. But any role is too much for a neighbor.

The U.S.-Canada border has, since the War of 1812, been famously porous. Canadians do not need visas to enter the United States, and vice versa. More than 200 million border crossings are made each year for business, tourism and family visits. Plans are in place to let subscribers to New York's E-ZPass toll road system use it when crossing Buffalo's Peace Bridge between the two countries.

But Canada has been told in no uncertain terms that it must adopt a border-control regime acceptable to America or else a trip from Windsor, Ontario, to Detroit will involve lineups and security checks more familiar to those traveling between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego.

This would be catastrophic for Canadian industry, which has already followed the American economy into a slump. Yet, a hardened border would hit both sides, since Canada and America are each other's largest business partner. Trade valued in American dollars at about $1.4 billion crosses the border every day, according to the U.S. State Department. Canada is America's primary oil and energy supplier, but the largest component of cross-border trade - about $300 million a year - is automotive manufacturing. In recent years, the border has become almost invisible to the auto industry, whose just-in-time supply chains criss-cross the border. Factories in both Canada and the United States were idled by day-long delays at border crossings following Sept. 11.

Despite overwhelming economic arguments for a common security perimeter, there is still some resistance among Canadian officials to a simple adoption by Canada of America's border security methods. For one thing, U.S. immigration authorities have hardly covered themselves in glory. Since most of the killers on Sept. 11 were living in the United States legally, some in Canada object to putting Canadian security in the hands of incompetents.

Such concerns are likely just bumps on the road to more complete integration of Canada into the United States, both economically and politically. A last driving force worth noting is the fall of the Canadian dollar, currently plumbing record lows below 63 U.S. cents per dollar. Support among the general public for adopting the American dollar reached 25 percent this fall. Support is even stronger among the business, political and media elite.

Still, one lesson of Sept. 11 is that things that seem inevitable have a way of coming unstuck. Closer integration with Canada may seem like a good way for America to secure its borders, as well as access to energy. But barriers to further integration are more likely to come from Washington, where some politicians might be cool to the idea of making U.S. citizens out of 33 million people who like their health care government-run and their handguns illegal.

Copyright 2001, Newsday, Inc.


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