bin Laden's legacy continues to terrorize the Canada-U.S. border

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Appeared in the Hamilton Spectator and Trail Daily Times

The world breathed a sigh of relief after President Barack Obama announced the demise of Osama bin Laden in a stunning Special Forces operation. But for Canadian businesses relying on trade with their American counterparts, the nightmare represented by bin Laden continues.

Despite bin Laden’s death, there is little chance that the increased security measures and thickening of the Canada-U.S. border that was enacted following the 9/11 attacks is going to end. If anything, the hardships for Canadian business resulting from the border thickening have worsened since 9/11. While the precise cost to Canada in terms of commerce, tourism, and government spending is difficult to estimate, the costs have been, and continue to be, very significant.

U.S.-bound exports, which previously accounted for more than 80 per cent of all Canadian exports, have fallen below 70 per cent. Part of this shortfall is attributable to economic circumstances such as Canada’s strong loonie relative to the greenback and depressed demand for Canadian exports due to the recession’s impact on the American economy. However, a significant part of the decline in Canada’s U.S.-bound exports is a result of logistical challenges characteristic of the post-9/11 border.

The negative impact of post- 9/11 security arrangements has also taken a serious toll on the flow of tourists crossing our 5,500-kilometer shared border. According to a 2009 Canadian Tourism Commission report, the number of Americans taking leisure visits to Canada has fallen steadily, from about 40 million trips in 2001 to just over 22 million in 2008. Fewer American tourists visiting Canada means fewer dollars finding their way into the tills of tourism-dependent Canadian businesses.

Canadians and Americans have become familiar with heightened security procedures waiting to greet us at North America’s airports. Most of us are acquainted with the longer wait times now required to cross into the U.S. Most Canadians--and Americans--know that a passport is now required to cross the border. But if the border has become smarter, few Canadians have noticed.

The U.S. and Canadian governments recognize the increased costs imposed on businesses and tourists as a result of border thickening. And while the U.S. government has been busy implementing new initiatives, utilizing new technologies and changing the way the border is secured, Canada’s government has struggled to stay abreast of the changes.

Numerous programs have been implemented that together comprise the security shield now guarding the border. Acronyms abound: FAST, WHTI and US-VISIT to name just a few. North Americans are likely safer than they were a decade ago. But our economies have paid dearly for the increased security.

The security oriented mentality that has dominated Canada-U.S. border management since 9/11 needs to be refined. We need to shore up continental security on the one hand while simultaneously promoting the continental economy on the other. The Canadian government must work with the Americans to establish a continental security perimeter, integrating the border enforcement and customs agencies of North America. No other approach can effectively balance security and commerce. No other approach can overshadow bin Laden’s legacy of a thickened Canada-U.S. border.

Canadians should thus lean on their elected representatives and the new majority government to pursue every chance to assure the Americans regarding our commitment to the strengthening of the continental security regime. No opportunity can be squandered.

The discussions in February 2011 between Prime Minister Harper and President Obama marked a fresh opportunity to pursue a continental security perimeter. Both acknowledged the need to introduce initiatives that address border security needs. But both leaders also acknowledged the costs to commerce and tourism that additional security measures entail. However, the initiative must be maintained by the Government of Canada.

At the end of the day, Canadians are dependent of the U.S economy to ensure their high standard of living. The reverse does not hold. Americans benefit from their economic interaction with Canada, but they don’t depend it. It is up to the new majority government to take the lead on a North American Security and Regulatory Agreement that moves towards maximum possible integration of border security and customs operations between the U.S. and Canada. Otherwise, bin Laden’s legacy will outlive the man.

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