Renewed hope for a more efficient Canada-U.S. border

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Appeared in Trail Daily Times

The new border security agreement to be announced by Prime Minister Harper and President Barack Obama is badly needed and should bring some relief to Canadian traders, travelers, and tax payers. Harper has managed to convince his American counterpart that the past 10 years of increased border security and corresponding delays and bureaucracy -- border thickening -- has to stop and be reversed. Our governments are proposing to do this by streamlining how we process the coming and going of people and by streamlining unnecessary commercial regulations on the products we make together.

Convincing the Americans to make the border more streamlined is by no means a small feat. The Department of Homeland Security and many members of Congress would like to build more fences and walls and make the border even more difficult and expensive to transit. So Harper has wisely engaged the White House to put some counter pressure to this ‘fortress America’ momentum.

Although explicit details of the agreement are not yet available, government sources indicate it contains provisions calling for coordination of the entrance and exit of all people and additional security features to enhance trade whereby trucks or cargo can be secured at the factory and processed more quickly at the border. The two governments have also begun a bilateral process of identifying regulations that can be harmonized to reduce customs and other paperwork.

The fact of the matter is that this latest agreement builds on earlier accords and is not the invention of the current government. It is an improvement on the Smart Border Accord of 2001 negotiated by Jean Chretien as well as the Security and Prosperity Partnership with Mexico and the United States that Paul Martin joined in 2005.

The new deal adds a coordinated entrance and exit system on the land border. Given that Canada and the United States share a 6,500 km border (not including Alaska) which we do not want to turn into a military zone, it is only reasonable to share data on people coming and going. The Americans want to make sure that no terrorists slip into their country and there is little point in Canadian critics calling this concern paranoid.  After all, national security is no longer just about airplanes or missiles. One terrorist with a backpack or car full of deadly material can cause a catastrophe.

Canadians on the other hand want more efficient trade access to the U.S. market. Given those two interests, the deal seems to offer both sides progress.

Rather than crying over lost privacy, Canadians and Americans need to keep their governments’ feet to the fire. The plan promises a thinner border and less regulatory delays. The Canadian side apparently will need to make a significant investment to set this up. Fine, but our government must provide both itemized budget amounts and benchmarks to allow Canadians to see whether we are in fact making progress on the border and whether we are spending money wisely.

The Canada-U.S. border is quite a costly bottleneck. Losses in travel and tourism, commerce and trade, as well as taxpayers’ money to finance government expenditures in administering border procedures and various security programs amount to tens of billions of dollars per year. There is no consistent data available to the public to track year-by-year costs of border programs. Researchers can only find snap shots of individual programs or pieces of overall program spending.

Keep in mind that after 10 years of various border initiatives, actual costs have gone up while we are not sure if any security gains have been made. Unless we can measure and evaluate them, border programs will expand by their own bureaucratic momentum. Canadians are well-served by this new shared border vision but we need to demand that its objectives and expenditures be held to account.

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