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Harper-Obama border plan draws criticism ahead of announcement

The Canadian Press)

Harper and Obama in Honolulu this month (Source: Global News)

Prime Minister Harper will travel to Washington, D.C. next week where he’s expected to announce a 32-point Canada-US Beyond the Border Action Plan. All we know about it is what the media is reporting. The secrecy of the negotiations, lack of real consultation on the plan, and the minor details to come out are already drawing criticism from privacy watchdogs, Canada’s largest circulation newspaper, and other groups, including the Council of Canadians.


The Toronto Star editorial board writes today that the Beyond the Border deal “that the Harper government has worked out with U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration behind closed doors over the past 10 months remains an enigma wrapped in a riddle, mere days before the two meet in Washington.”

While supportive of easing border flows, the Star warns that “a bad deal could see Canada barter away privacy rights, have American police operating here without strict accountability, adopt heavy-handed U.S. policies toward visa- and asylum-seekers, expose travellers to the risk of being wrongly red-flagged as undesirables and dilute Canadian regulatory standards on everything from crash standards for seatbelts and child restraints to food packaging.”

They say the “most worrisome” part of the border negotiations “is that neither Parliament nor the public have been consulted in any meaningful way, despite one poll that found that 9 in 10 Canadians wanted the talks conducted in public. There has been no Commons debate. Senior business leaders don’t know the details, and neither does labour. Civil rights groups fear the worst. Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart has urged us to keep ‘both eyes wide open.’ But it’s hard even to know where to look, given the secrecy that has shrouded the negotiations.”

Toronto Star columnist Tim Harper also writes about the border deal in today’s paper, emphasizing the secrecy and bad process.

“The Conservatives didn’t want to negotiate the deal in public, but they could have provided updates or, God forbid, held a Parliamentary hearing or two to trumpet an accord they believe is in the country’s best interests,” he says. “Their public consultations were meagre; they spent much more time with ‘stakeholders’ than real Canadians.”

Micheal Vonn of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association tells the Star, “It’s contemptuous of Canadian citizenry to unveil a program in which we’ve had essentially no input… This process has really been conducted behind closed doors. We’ve had no white papers, no reports – nothing that we could point to to say, ‘Here are the pros and cons, here are the drawbacks, here are the things we are considering.'”


A further article in the Star by Les Whittington lists some of the other substantive concerns with aspects of the agreement such as a new (probably integrated or at least shared with the U.S.) entry-exit record for all Canadian travel, joint policing across borders, and increased sharing of personal information without adequate checks and balances on it or on existing joint programs.

Canada’s privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, wrote about the perimeter deal recently in the Hill Times, pointing out the differences between Canadian and U.S. privacy protection rules. “For one thing,” she said, “the Privacy Act in Canada protects personal information collected by any federal government organization in Canada. It protects it for everyone, regardless of their nationality. The U.S. Privacy Act offers such protection only to citizens and permanent residents.”

Stoddart adds there is no overarching body in the U.S. governing the handling of personal information by private firms whose services are used by the U.S. government. And there is “no equivalent counterpart” to the privacy commissioner in the U.S. “to investigate privacy issues with regard to government data handling.”

Stoddart also wrote in the Huffington Post this month that “Canada’s approach to privacy centers on protecting individuals’ right to control their personal information except where limits can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. This is an approach which should not be compromised or watered-down in order to reach a perimeter security agreement.”


The Council of Canadians will be watching next week’s joint announcement in Washington very closely. We share the concerns of privacy and civil liberties groups that it is reckless for the Harper government to be pursuing more security integration with U.S. when things like the no-fly list, Shiprider joint policing project on the Great Lakes and other shared waterways, and existing data sharing policies are not properly monitored. Where is the accountability?

We’ll be paying as much attention to the points in the border plan on regulatory harmonization. From food inspection, to genetically modified crops, to child car seats, pesticide residue limits and oil pipeline specifications, harmonization with U.S. norms could result in lower standards and an inability for Canadian governments to strengthen public health or environmental rules in the future.

Granted some U.S. standards are higher and Canada has signalled it will be deregulating for energy and mining projects. Harper is not succumbing to U.S. pressure but corporate pressure to some extent, when he commits to further harmonization of standards, and his own ideological beliefs when he lowers or ignores environmental standards. There is evidence that this agenda, which includes a move in Canada over the past decade to more U.S.-style voluntary industry monitoring of health risks, is putting Canadians at unnecessary risk in the area of food inspection.

For an idea of the other areas where Harper will pursue regulatory convergence, see the recommendations from a consultation on North American regulatory cooperation with business and Canadian government regulatory agencies. The list includes chemicals management and labelling, pesticide approvals, synchronized approvals of agricultural biotechnology products (ex. GE salmon or GE wheat), food additives, green energy and several other areas. The regulatory aspect of the border deal, in other words, will need to be scrutinized so it does not take us even further away from the precautionary principle.

The Toronto Star editorial concludes: “The Harper government’s disdain for Parliament and its reflexive secrecy got the Conservatives safely past the election, to a majority. But the debate on Canada-U.S. integration can’t be put off forever.”

We’ll know what we’re debating next week when the border “action plan” is announced. Stay tuned.