Presidential candidate Scott Walker inadvertently generated Onionesque headlines on Sunday during an interview for the TV show Meet the Press. The Governor of Wisconsin, a Republican, was asked for his opinion about building a wall along the US-Canadian border to deter the illegal entry of terrorists, migrants, and international criminals. Walker called the idea “legitimate.”
Jokes about protecting the U.S. or Canada from Justin Bieber, moose, cheese smugglers, poutine, Trump voters, and Republican party presidential candidates soon followed. At nearly 9,000 kilometres (including the border with Alaska), the U.S.-Canadian border is the world’s longest international border without a military presence, and the idea of fortifying it with a physical wall is seen as absurd, not to mention financially infeasible.
(Walker has since stated that his comment was misinterpreted by the press.)
Andrew Finn, a scholar and program associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center’s Canada Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, says that a great wall of Canada is not the end product anyone should have in mind in response to actual concerns about the northern border.
"To be fair, there’s some truth to the notion that there’s a higher risk of terrorists entering the U.S. through Canada over Mexico," he tells Yahoo Canada, “but only because there is no threat from the Mexican border, while there is a slight risk from the northern border.”
That said, the last incident of a terrorist attempting to enter the States through Canada happened in 1999, when Ahmed Ressam, who had ties to Algerian extremist group, attempted to enter Washington State from British Columbia with explosives in his car. His ultimate plan was to bomb a Los Angeles airport.
Ressam made it past U.S. agents at a pre-clearance stop in Victoria, B.C., but was apprehended by a U.S. Customs official in Port Angeles, Washington, where his cross-border ferry landed.
“So he didn’t make it and that was pre 9/11,” Finn said.
“I can assure that he never would have made it even as far as he did with the security measures in place today.”
There were also two homegrown terror attacks in Canada last fall, Finn points out, and in both cases the terrorists had been blocked from going abroad, so they carried out their attacks at home.
“There are concerns around tracking people like that,” Finn said.
“But the Canadian and US border control agents work more closely together than anyone else, particularly since implementing the Beyond the Border accord.”
The focus is now on intelligence sharing and knowing where people are, he said.
In other words, don’t be fooled by the benign flower pots that mark part of the international border between sleepy Stanstead, Quebec and Derby Line, Vermont.
The international border runs right through a shared library and opera house here, one that can be entered from either country. Yet roaming past the border at any location other than a legal crossing will most likely be detected by officials thanks to the use of sensitive ground sensors and other forms of technology.
The same is true along any place where a mandated 20 foot-wide ribbon of deforested land marks the boundary line, even in uninhabited areas of the West.
“There are places on the 49th parallel where there isn't anything there, but there is intelligence, they do monitor these things,” says Finn. Someone can walk into the U.S., but they will not go unnoticed.
If anything, it’s the northbound traffic into Canada that may not be monitored enough, according to an investigative report by the Globe and Mail in 2011. (The article followed a senate inquiry into border safety.) The paper called attention to the fact that between the U.S. and Canada, there were more than 100 unguarded roads, most of which are in Quebec.
At that Stanstead crossing, border control officials told the Globe that they often see cars passing illegally into Canada but would be unable to give chase, and instead would have to call the nearest RCMP station—50 kilometers away.
Reporters also found issues with marine boundaries, including those of Quebec’s Eastern Townships, where Lake Memphremagog is in both the U.S. and Canada.
“The U.S. Border Patrol says it maintains ‘regular marine patrols’ on its side but in Canada, there are only a couple of unmanned ‘telephone reporting centres.’ ”
In Halifax, a border agent described his system for processing incoming cruise ship passengers. “I get a stack of paper, stamp it and admit 3,000 people without any interviews or checks,” the unnamed official said.
Still, a handful of U.S. lawmakers other than Walker have suggested that the northern border deserves more resources and attention by U.S. authorities.
During an April hearing on cross-border security, New Jersey’s Cory Booker, a Senate Democrat, displayed images of the famously wide open border—essentially a ditch— that divides most of the southern border of British Columbia from Washington State, a hot spot for marijuana smuggling.
In places along that line, two rural roads—one in Surrey, B.C., and one in Blaine, WA— run parallel to the border and very close to each other. Guests at the Smugglers’ Inn in Blaine, on Canada View Road, can even use the inn’s night-vision goggles to watch for smugglers from the comfort of their rooms.
“I, for one, am not calling for any fence,” Booker said. “But also what I’m really looking for is a proportionate focus on our northern border threats.”
North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp, another Democrat, has also suggested that the US Department of Homeland Security pay more attention to the 49th parallel and “focus on keeping border agents on staff in remote areas where job retention can be difficult.”
The need for better staffing is one of the genuine issues facing the U.S. northern border, says the Woodrow Center’s Finn. But, he adds, economics must come first.
“Making sure that Canada and the US can move legitimate people and goods across the border easily and efficiently should be the number one goal.”
To this end, measures like the Nexus trusted traveler program are good initiatives, he believes.
“The less often you have to decide whether someone is admissible at the border itself, the better.”