Border deal fuels concerns in Canada

The Star
29.11.2011

Armed U.S. police officers will for the first time be allowed to operate in Canada along with the RCMP as part of far-reaching changes in Canadian-American border operations to be unveiled next week by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama.

The joint action plan to be announced at the White House will also break new ground by introducing exit-entry records that will track the movements of everyone who leaves the United States or Canada, with the information available to authorities in both countries.

In the months and years ahead, the deal between Ottawa and Washington will reshape security, travel and commercial arrangements at the border in a variety of profound ways — some of which have already raised alarms among Canadians.

The agreement, which has been the subject of confidential negotiations since last winter, is intended to reverse the economically damaging border tie-ups that have been growing since Sept. 11, 2001, while upgrading anti-crime and anti-terrorist security for both countries.

In contrast to the silence from Canadian negotiators, some U.S. officials have been open about what the new reality at the border will look like in the years ahead.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder revealed last fall that the deal will authorize Canada and the U.S. to designate officers who can take part in police investigations on both sides of the border. The pilot project, Holder said, will improve the two countries’ ability to deal with the “unprecedented” threats along the border from terrorists, human smugglers, illegal firearms traffickers and drug dealers.

The model for the joint policing program is the Shiprider project, a three-year-old plan under which the RCMP and U.S. Coast Guard join forces and ride in each others’ vessels when patrolling boundary waters.

As part of the measures to improve security and streamline border practices, the Beyond the Border blueprint is also expected to include greatly increased information-sharing between Canada and the U.S., including the exit-entry plan.

This secretly devised shake-up of border operations has sparked widespread concerns.

“It’s contemptuous of Canadian citizenry to unveil a program in which we’ve had essentially no input,” said Micheal Vonn, policy director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.

“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,’ ” she said.

Vonn said the call for comment by Foreign Affairs earlier this year was not a real consultation, because it was based on the loosely worded framework agreement for a border overhaul signed by Harper and Obama in February — not the actual pact negotiated in the months since by officials from Ottawa and Washington.

These fears have been underscored by the federal privacy commissioner’s office, which told Foreign Affairs “the experiences of many Canadians in recent years at border crossings and airports highlight ongoing concerns over the protection of privacy rights while travelling.”

This has ranged from increased instances of individuals being delayed, detained or denied entry to the United States to “the tragic rendition of a Canadian citizen to torture in Syria,” the commission said, in a reference to Maher Arar. The Syrian-born Canadian citizen was held and tortured in Syria after being detained and sent there in 2002 by U.S. authorities. “Maher Arar, despite having been cleared of any wrongdoing in Canada, remains on the U.S. no fly list to this day,” the commission said in its June submission.

Assistant privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier said it’s crucial that the agreement include measures that give Canadians a recourse to challenge or correct personal information in border data bases that they believe to be erroneous.

Stuart Trew, trade campaigner with the Ottawa-based Council of Canadians, said further integration of Canada and U.S. police operations is worrisome at a time when Canadians are still waiting for the establishment of recommended controls on information-sharing by Canadian police and intelligence agencies.

“The mechanism for holding the U.S. agents accountable is vague,” he said of the joint policing project included in the border deal. “It’s difficult to know how you would file a complaint, for example, against a U.S. agent and whether there is any accountability in that respect.”

Besides security, the agreement expected to be announced in Washington on Dec. 7 will cover a wide range of measures on border infrastructure, harmonized product standards, intelligence-gathering and commercial transport.

The agreement is also expected to earmark $1 billion for investment in improved border posts, call for harmonized information requirements on both sides of the border and improve trusted travelers programs such as NEXUS.

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