Beyond Public View: Harper's Beyond the Border initiative a year later

A year ago today, Prime Minister Harper and US President Obama re-started a defunct or stalled North American "security and prosperity" dialogue only minus Mexico and with a new name: Beyond the Border. On December 7, 2011, Maude Barlow and I wrote:

Based on news reports, the 32-point Beyond the Border Action Plan will create new checks on travel into and out of Canada and increase the amount of personal information that is shared with U.S. security agencies. It will announce new joint policing initiatives that could make it normal to have U.S. agents operating in Canada.... The perimeter deal will also likely commit to further convergence of Canadian and U.S. environmental, food safety and health regulations in areas important to large transnational business lobby groups.

We predicted that Canada would be "asked to adopt wholesale the U.S. vision and tactics of the ongoing Global War on Terrorism, with its increasing use of data collection and surveillance in the North American homeland. In return, the U.S. agrees to maybe, just maybe let trucks across the border a few seconds faster."

We weren't disappointed. Or I should say we were disappointed, just not surprised.

Like its predecessor, the Security and Prosperity Partnership, the Beyond the Border Action Plan contained a list of U.S. requests to harmonize security and surveillance measures next to a list of mostly Canadian requests to streamline customs procedures and regulations to improve NAFTA trade flows. These economic and security measures weren't colour coded red vs red, white and blue, but from a discussion with a Canadian diplomat in Washington during the summer of 2011, we knew which were more important to Canada.

Unfortunately for the Harper government, a year's worth of bi-national dialogue has been better for Homeland Security than for Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. You can read it into the list of government press releases from the past year, but the most notable examples include:

1. A set of joint privacy principles that does nothing to address the recommendations of the Arar Commission on safeguarding personal information shared with U.S. security agencies. Under the Beyond the Border plan, information shared with the U.S. can be sent to third countries without Canada's permission. Canada's Privacy Commissioner's office said in June, "Considering that privacy is a fundamental human right, one would expect that a statement of privacy principles would be binding. So the fact that it's not begs the question of the purpose of the statement."

2. Permanent joint policing of the Great Lakes and other shared waterways under the Shiprider project. Harper used his first omnibudget this spring to ratify this joint policing initiative, which puts Homeland Security agents on RCMP boats and vice versa in order to make the border disappear during cross-border operations. Designated officers will be given some room to pursue suspects onto land. A land-based "Next Generation" (or NextGen) program is envisioned for land policing as well but is stalled on legal issues.

3. A new Electronic Travel Authorization program in Canada, modelled on the U.S. program, which requires travellers to Canada from visa-exempt countries to fill out an electronic form before their flight. The traveller will be asked a set of questions, which in the U.S. program includes details of their health conditions and other personal issues, and quickly informed if they are cleared for travel. In the U.S., an estimated two per cent of potential travellers are not cleared. Civil liberties groups in Canada are concerned that to the extent this system will be harmonized with the U.S. system, and rely on U.S. databases, there is room for foreign interference in Canada's sovereign decision on who gets into the country.

4. The beginning of a pilot project for a joint Entry-Exit system involving the collection and sharing of biographic information on all third-country nationals, permanent residents of Canada and lawful permanent residents of the United States. The system has been set up temporarily at the Peace Arch and Pacific Highway border crossings in Blaine, Washington, the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge in New York, and the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls.

Commenting on the progress to date, Matthew Wilson of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters told Embassy Magazine, "If you look at kind of the security agenda, things like tweaking or improving the [pre-clearance] program, improvements in the use of the cross-border policing...those have been moved ahead fairly quickly. It gets more complicated when you start looking at removing some of the barriers to trade."

Still, there has been some movement on the regulatory issues, according to the Wilson Center's Beyond the Border Observer -- a must-read website for those wanting to keep up to date on the Canada-U.S. border talks.

For example, at the end of November, Environment Minister Peter Kent announced that Canada will adopt U.S. standards on automobile fuel emissions. "While these standards have been subject to criticism, Bloomberg BNA highlights the economic significance of Canada and the United States achieving greater symmetry on their fuel economy standards," writes Keith White for the Wilson Center project, which contains a good timeline of the Beyond the Border initiatives and discussions to date.

So in content the Beyond the Border talks have simply continued the North American Security and Prosperity Partnership discussions which were cancelled in 2008 by the new Obama administration. In style they are also no different, with regulatory and security harmonization happening with little visibility, no participation by elected officials, and in close cooperation with business lobby groups supportive of the project.

We sympathize with the goal of improving trade flows across the border, and are thankful that a new border crossing may finally be built to connect Windsor and Detroit (this alone will improve Canada-U.S. trade than all of the minor customs tweaks envisioned in Beyond the Border). But harmonization of food, health and product safety standards for the sake of harmonization and with no mind to improving those standards was the wrong agenda then and now. And Harper has clearly failed to find any balance in the border talks, giving the U.S. whatever it wants on security and getting very little of substance on easing trade at the border.