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NEWS: Perimeter security consultation prompts many questions, says the Toronto Star

The Toronto Star editorial board writes, “You might have missed the news, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to know what people think about the ‘North American perimeter security’ talks that he and U.S. President Barack Obama launched last month. Some see it as the most far-reaching Canada-U.S. initiative since the 1988 free trade deal. …Nice idea, that. But it’s hard to know what to think about Ottawa’s plans because it hasn’t yet spelled them out.”

QUESTIONS: “The perimeter proposal was hatched in secret and remains a murky work in progress. …So far, Ottawa has served up only generalities.” The Toronto Star asks:

1- How, exactly, do Harper and Obama define a North American ‘perimeter?’

2- How would sharing more data on travellers and goods coming into Canada and the U.S. from abroad materially ‘streamline and decongest’ the border, when most traffic originates locally?

3- How would ‘improved intelligence and information sharing’ work?

4- What about ‘joint threat assessments?’ What information would we share? Who defines threats? The U.S. still obtusely regards Maher Arar as a threat, long after he was cleared.

5- How would an ‘integrated Canada-U.S. entry-exit system’ — potentially the most contentious part of this deal — work in practice? How would its exchange of ‘relevant’ data affect privacy? Would a Canadian flying from Toronto to Paris or Cairo, for example, be tracked in some U.S. database? How far would the sharing go?

6- When officials talk about ‘screening’ travellers, what do they envisage, and what biometrics do they propose to rely on? The U.S. has a vast and not always reliable database of red-flagged people. And it’s not easy to get off the list.

7- How far would Ottawa go in stepping up ‘cross-border law enforcement operations?’ Does anyone envisage U.S. federal agents arresting suspects here?

HARPER SECRETIVE ON PERIMETER SECURITY: The Globe and Mail reported on March 16 that, “The federal government wants members of the public to impart their ‘shared vision’ for the security of the Canada-U.S. perimeter – it just doesn’t want to explain what that means.” The article highlighted, “Ottawa-based researcher Ken Rubin used federal Access to Information legislation to ask the Public Safety department for documents related to the definition of the term ‘perimeter security’ in the context of the Canada-U.S. border.  …The department’s response was an unequivocal ‘no’. …In a letter written March 4, Public Safety officials said: ‘The records pertaining to your request have been entirely withheld.’ The department said the information could be injurious to international affairs, that it contained information developed for a government institution or minister, that it would provide an account of a government consultation, and that it is a matter of cabinet confidence.”

TRANSPARENCY DEMANDED: The Toronto Star adds, “A recent poll found that nine in 10 Canadians want the talks conducted in public, and two in three fear the government will give away too much.” Postmedia News reported on February 19 that an Ipsos-Reid poll found that:

1- 91 per cent of Canadians say the negotiations (on perimeter security) should take place in public so that they can see what is on the table. …Canadians want Harper to adopt a much more transparent approach to the…negotiations which are being held in total secrecy.

2- (68 per cent) of Canadians fear Prime Minister Stephen Harper will ‘compromise’ by giving up too much power over immigration, privacy and security to get a deal with the United States on border controls…

3- The national survey…also finds Canadians are split over whether they ‘trust’ Harper to craft a deal that maintains this country’s independence. …49 per cent trust him, while 51 per cent don’t.

4- 63 per cent believe the proposal is ‘an acceptable measure to enhance border security,’ while 37 per cent disagreed.

ACTION ALERT #1: The Council of Canadians issued an action alert on February 4 that calls on Canadians to write the prime minister and say, “You do not have my support to sign a new perimeter security deal with the United States. It was wrong of you to agree to such a plan without consulting with Canadians first. Before anything else is said or done on this deal you need to seek a real public mandate.” To send that message to the prime minister and opposition leaders, go to http://canadians.org/action/2011/SecurityPlan.html.

ACTION ALERT #2: On March 15, after the government’s announcement about the on-line consultation, we issued an action alert that says, “No one can know for sure what ‘perimeter security’ means until the details, which are being developed behind closed doors, are announced in June. And we are being asked to suggest only improvements (not criticisms) of a plan we haven’t seen. Furthermore, the government is clearly prioritizing the input of business groups, though all Canadian residents will be impacted by deeper security ties with the United States.” But, despite the Harper government’s secrecy on the perimeter security issue, the Council of Canadians trade campaigner Stuart Trew has developed suggested messages for people to send to the federal government’s on-line consultation. To respond to that action alert, please go to http://canadians.org/action/2011/SecurityPlan.html. Along with our suggested messages, you may also want to simply cut and paste the seven questions asked by the Toronto Star and e-mail them to border@ic.gc.ca or submit them to the on-line form at https://www.borderactionplan-plandactionfrontalier.gc.ca/psec-scep/comments-commentaires.aspx.