New border deals: More aspirational than actual changes

Getting any kind of a deal with the Americans these days on just about anything can be considered a big deal.

U.S. President Barack Obama is, if the polls can be believed, not having a good time of it. He has been politically neutered by his Republic opponents in Congress and in the U.S. Senate. There is a virtual logjam in Washington on most issues because those Republicans refuse to play nice with Democrats and vice versa.

And so against that background two deals announced this afternoon between Canada and the U.S. can be considered an accomplishment of sorts.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says, in the materials distributed to the press earlier today that the deals “represent the most significant step forward in Canada-U.S. cooperation since the North American Free Trade Agreement.”


But right now the two deals are more aspirational than actual in nature. They commit each country to establish a whole host of studies, working groups and commitees each one with objectives and each – admirably – with deadlines to achieve some results.

But will the 200,000 or so people that cross the border every day see a difference tomorrow? No. Soon, you might be able to use Twitter to get information about lineups at border times. Over the next year or so some “trusted traveller” programs like Nexus will be improved.

But by and large, changes to improve the travelling experience will come slowly and incrementally over the next three to five years.

Same thing for businesses. There is a whole raft of things both countries are going to work on to speed the $1.5 billion worth of goods and services that cross the border each and every day but, in some cases, it will take three years or longer before new systems are in place.

Notably, the deals – they are titled “Action Plan on Regulatory Cooperation” and “Action Plan on Perimeter Security and Economic Competiveness” – come with no information about how much these initiatives will cost. Instead, both countries commit to implementing their plans and objectives through the regular budgetary process.

But make no mistake: The technology and infrastructure investments that will be eventually be realized will be substantial.

Nonetheless, governments on both sides say it will be well worth it because the “thickened” or inefficient border right now costs the Canadian economy about 1 per cent of GDP or $16 billion a year.

Most of what the Canadian government needs to do can be accomplished through regulation. Regulations are passed by cabinet with no parliamentary oversight so it will be up to the Conservatives or any other government in power to prove what they declared in their deal documents that they want to be transparent and accountable with all they do as they meet new border objectives.

Finally, there is the devil that is the details. Despite the apparent political will to get something done on this issue, past performance is sometimes an indicator of future performance.

Consider: Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency have been tapped to co-operate and, together with their American counterparts, develop one of the most politically sensitive projects associated with these deals, setting up systems to trade biographic and biometric information about travellers crossing the border. Through this system, information about Canadians could end up in U.S. databases and vice versa.

So, how well do the bureaucrats at CIC and CBSA co-operate on these kind of security-sensitive, systemic projects? Not well, Canada’s Auditor General said last month. In fact, the A-G was warning for the third time a decade that when it comes handling security and background checks on visa applications, there were a host of accountability and, possibly, security holes because CIC and the CBSA do not work together.

Nonethless, CIC and CBSA  have now been given until January, 2013 to come with plans to securely trade traveller information with their American counterparts. Good luck.

Finally, there is the issue of safeguarding the privacy of personal information in accordance with Canadian and provincial privacy laws. Officials briefing reporters were adamant that there is nothing in either of these deals that would compel either country to “adopt anything we don’t want to adopt.” Ok, fine, but many civil society groups are worried that the Canadian government – this one or a future one – will “want” to adopt regulations that reduce privacy protection. Governments will have to be clear how far they’re prepared to go on this issue.

And, perhaps in recognition that this is such a sensitive topic, one of the first things both countries have committed to do is develop and publish “a joint statement of joint Canada–United States privacy principles to inform and guide information- and intelligence-sharing.”

Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama committed this afternoon to having that done by May 30 next year. Their success in achieving agreement that both countries can live with on that issue and do it by that deadline should tell us a lot about the chances of success for the dozens of other objectives Canada and its American partner have to improve the border.


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