It’s indicative of how lopsided our relationship still is with the United States that a missed Canadian deadline on a bilateral border security plan is being treated as a big deal north of the 49th parallel but largely shrugged off in Washington.
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney found himself forced to underscore that Canada is still committed to a plan for the two countries to share foreign-travel data of their residents — a system that was supposed to be operating by last June.
The program is part of the perimeter-security element of the 2011 Beyond the Border initiative, a sprawling agreement aimed at smoothing the flow of people and goods between Canada and the United States, countering the border’s post-9/11 thickening and eliminating costly delays.
The arrangement already allows both countries to share entry and exit information about foreigners and permanent residents, but the second phase was to expand the system to cover citizens as well.
The information-sharing arrangement is seen as a way of identifying illegal entries and those making duplicate asylum claims. It would also aid in the tracking of potential terror suspects who might be entering or leaving the U.S. or Canada, a particularly crucial function due to the recruiting efforts of Islamic terrorist groups like ISIS.
Blaney played down the missed deadline during a visit to Vancouver this week, according to The Canadian Press, suggesting it wasn’t a hard deadline at all.
"These are targets; we are constructively working with our American counterparts," Blaney told reporters.
"The Beyond the Border action plan is on track. Are we exactly where we wished to be? Not exactly, but we are moving in the right direction."
Little urgency from Washington
Even if Blaney found the situation awkward, there’s no indication the Americans thought the missed “target” was a problem, at least if Yahoo Canada News’ s inquiry to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is any indication.
“The Department of Homeland Security continues to work with Canada on a range of joint security priorities outlined in the Beyond the Border action plan, including efforts to use a common approach to screening, enhance information sharing, identify and interdict inadmissible persons at the perimeter, and integrate our cross-border law enforcement operations,” a DHS official said via email.
Despite concerns potential native-born jihadist sympathizers might cross the border to join extremist groups, the absence of shared data on international travel does not seem to faze the U.S. government’s sprawling homeland security apparatus. It has other ways to track potential terrorists, the official said.
The fact it was even a news story in Canada is a reflection of the asymmetrical relationship we have — and have almost always had — with the superpower next door.
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The United States has bigger fish to fry, such as quarterbacking the response to the Islamic State and sending troops to help combat Ebola in Africa, said Andrew Finn, an associate at the Canada Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington think tank.
“Canada, we say here, is the A student at the front of the class,” Finn said. “Sometimes the A student doesn’t get the attention it sometimes deserves and I think this is kind of the case.
“[Beyond the Border]’s an important issue and Canadians obviously realize it. It’s more in the forefront for Canadians when they’re discussing the United States, but in the U.S., it’s [just] one of many concerns.”
Ottawa may have underestimated the time it would take to get the various perimeter-security components through the federal bureaucracy, said Christian Leuprecht, a political scientist at Queen’s University and the Royal Military College. The data-sharing arrangement has required legislative changes and co-ordination between several departments.
As well, it had to be carefully vetted to withstand potential legal challenges by those who think the sharing of personal information violates privacy provisions of the Charter, said Leuprecht.
“Let’s put it this way, the timetable was always very ambitious from the outset,” he said.
But knowing how complex this was, why did the government set a target it would find hard to meet?
Both Sinn and Leuprecht said it has a lot to do with getting the big dog’s attention. Ottawa had a limited opportunity to get Washington on board with Beyond the Border before other priorities grabbed the attention of senior officials in President Barack Obama’s White House.
“I think what the government capitalized on was the personal investment and initiative by the Obama administration on this particular file,” said Leuprecht.
“I think the government did not want to miss out on that and thus I think rather took the risk on setting as ambitious a timetable as they possibly could.”
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The concern with going more slowly, he said, was running the risk that the White House’s attention inevitably would be drawn elsewhere, leaving the Beyond the Border initiative incomplete.
“Is it a big deal to miss the deadline?” said Sinn. “I would say not. But it is one of those things, you do want to strike when people are paying attention.”
BtB, as it’s known, is far more important to Canada’s economic health than it is to the U.S., though a majority of states, particularly those near the border, count Canada as their No. 1 trading partner.
Previous efforts to harmonize border arrangements, most recently the Security and Prosperity Partnership that included Mexico, have stumbled because the U.S. found other preoccupations.
Frustration from Ottawa
Canada has been the junior partner in this relationship for most of its history.
It’s played out recently in the frustrating delays over Washington’s decision on whether or not to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline that would take Alberta crude oil to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries and export terminals.
Inertia in Washington has also forced Canada to shoulder the initial cost of building the new International Trade Crossing bridge between Windsor, Ont., and Detroit, including financing construction of a $250-million customs plaza on the U.S. side.
Canada gets famously prickly when its reliability as a U.S. ally is questioned. Sinn noted that just this Friday, alarms were going off over an article in the online journal Politico that suggested — though perhaps with tongue in cheek — that the U.S.’s northern boundary posed a greater threat of terrorist infiltration than the famously porous Mexican border.
The Politico piece was up only a few hours before Maclean’s political editor Paul Wells posted a scathing rebuttal dripping with sarcasm.
So Canada has to slough off its missed deadline (OK, target) and push on with implementing the rest of BtB, or risk it joining the Prosperity Partnership in the unfinished projects bin.