Why the U.S. doesn’t trust Canada

by Paul Rosenzweig

On June 1, for the first time in history, Canadians and Americans crossing the border were required to show a passport (or equivalent) document. By all accounts the transition has, despite Canadian fears, proceeded with remarkably modest disruption. Canadians, however, continue to question the requirement and to object to other U.S. border security measures. As I worked (on behalf of the United States) over the past four years to prepare for these changes, most Canadians expressed a quiet dismay: “How,” they wondered, “could you be doing this to us when we are such good friends?”

After all, it has been a major sea change in the American approach to the land border with Canada. For more than 100 years, though Canadians have thought frequently and almost obsessively about the United States, most Americans have paid relatively little attention to Canada. Except for those who live close to the border (let’s all say it together: “the longest undefended border in the world”) or whose business is linked to Canadian products, most Americans don’t hold any strong opinion about Canada. You’re just like us, we think, only a little different and a little less temperate. We’re the lucky ones, because we have Florida (though each winter the residents of Ontario invade).

In the years since 9/11, I think many Canadians have come to yearn for this era of benign neglect. Before then, Canada had come to rely on the fact that America had not been paying very much attention to it. In effect, that let Canada have the best of both worlds—the capacity and interest in pursuing policies that are independent from those followed by the United States, joined with the enjoyment of an open border that substantially reduced any practical sovereign distinction between the two countries insofar as travel and trade were concerned.

The result was an undefended border, but one that had an inherent tension to it as differences grew in American and Canadian policies. By and large Canada has much greater openness to the rest of the world than does the U.S. Canadian asylum policies are more liberal; Canada extends the privilege of visa-free travel to the citizens of many more countries. And, more fundamentally, Canada takes a much lighter hand in screening arriving travellers.

These are, of course, generalizations, so let me provide a specific example. The United States has long had challenges on its southern border with Mexico. At this juncture, we have fairly stringent identification requirements for Mexicans entering the United States directly. Yet until new Canadian visa restrictions came into effect on July 14, Canada had chosen to allow visa-free travel for Mexicans to Canada; the lack of a more concrete identification requirement on the part of the U.S. at the northern border until June 1 created an opportunity for Mexicans to evade the southern border restrictions. Let me be clear: Canada is a good friend of the United States and a separate sovereign nation. It is, and ought to be, perfectly free to make independent sovereign decisions regarding its admissions policies. Nobody in the United States would say otherwise. But differences—like Canada’s past treatment of Mexican nationals—necessarily have consequences.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, the disharmony in immigration and border control policies was of relatively minor importance—certainly not worth attempting to correct if the cost would be a disruption in cross-border trade. That changed after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. At the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), where I served, we spent a large fraction of our time thinking about Canada—and with good reason. Created in 2003, DHS is the locus for American efforts to prevent another terrorist attack on the United States. To a large degree that means that DHS is a border security agency—and as a border agency, we worry about (surprise!) borders. That means that DHS spends a lot of its time thinking about Canada (along with Mexico and our “third border” in the Caribbean), and much less time worrying about more distant overseas threats in, say, South Asia or the Middle East. For DHS, “international affairs” frequently means “Canadian affairs” (or Mexican or Caribbean).

So the initial problem for Canada was a simple practical one—we were paying more attention. And what we saw caused us some concern. What had earlier been very modest divergences in immigration policy now loomed larger as differences in counterterrorism policy. Some Canadians have yet to come to grips with the new reality that Canada can’t have it both ways—it can’t both exercise its own sovereign authority over its border policies, and expect the United States not to do the same thing. If we did we would, in effect, be outsourcing American security decisions to Canada, a state of affairs that simply cannot continue in a post-9/11 world.

This new reality would be of little moment if we had a shared sense of the terrorist problem and could anticipate a commitment to working on a convergence of policies. Unfortunately, over the course of many discussions with my Canadian colleagues, all of which have been exceedingly amiable and pleasant, I’ve begun to worry that the U.S. and Canada are not as closely aligned as they think they are. We have tried to work at realigning our vision (the preferred course of action), but if we don’t succeed and continue down a path of divergence, that will, inevitably, lead to even greater disparities and controversies between the two countries.

The opening assumption that I brought to the negotiating table, and that I think every American would begin with, is that the U.S. and Canada more or less see the world in the same way. At the core, we like to believe that we think alike and have the same aim—a free and safe citizenry. Increasingly, however, I’m not sure this assumption holds. We don’t seem to see the world the same way anymore, and as a result there is perceptible erosion in the trust between us. Americans responded to Sept. 11 in ways that most Canadians don’t seem to have internalized. At an intellectual level, they recognize that 9/11 was a traumatic experience for the U.S. They understand and respect the fact that it has caused a reaction. But in their most candid moments, I suspect most Canadians think the U.S. overreacted (a view that some in the U.S.—though likely a minority—also share). Many Americans, by contrast, think that Canada didn’t react enough to Sept. 11, and that what little reaction there was amounted to, if anything, tepid half-measures.

Back in 2006, DHS made a broad strategic proposal to our Canadian counterparts: let’s work to synchronize our perimeter security approaches as much as possible. The payoff would be relaxed controls along our mutual border. I remember when then-DHS secretary Michael Chertoff first presented this idea to his counterpart, Stockwell Day, then minister for public safety. We laid out a comprehensive proposal that included: greater information sharing, coordinated standards for passenger screening, shared technology and targeting for cargo containers, and other similar concepts. Essentially we proposed a joint security model for homeland security that resembled NORAD in conception. Even at that first meeting the response from Canada was lukewarm, at best.

I continue to believe that there are many real benefits that would flow from co-operation of this sort. Here’s a concrete example. The U.S. has begun to develop a series of policies aimed at deterring the importation of a nuclear weapon or radiological material for a “dirty bomb” into the United States aboard small private aircraft (known, in the trade, as “general aviation”). Some of those policies are internal to the U.S.—we’ll be requiring better identification for passengers and pilots, for example. But one key component of the strategy is the idea of screening general aviation airplanes overseas, before they depart for the United States.

This was a win-win proposition for everyone. America would have greater security, since any radioactive material would be interdicted before it even started toward the U.S. The general aviation community would benefit, since they would undergo all of the regular U.S. customs and immigration screening overseas and then be allowed to travel to any airport in the U.S. (instead of the current practice, where they must first land at an official port of entry, like Miami, and then fly onward to their ultimate destination). And the host country and airport would benefit from increased traffic, with the resulting economic benefits. The attraction is so great that in less than two years the U.S. has already signed agreements of this sort with Ireland, Bermuda and Aruba. More are likely.

Early on, we saw this as a great opportunity to synchronize our perimeter security with Canada. The idea would be for Canadians to co-locate their own customs and immigration officials at the same facilities and provide the same service for Canada-bound general aviation. Since it’s unlikely that a terrorist would actually be able to acquire a loose nuclear weapon in Canada, there would be no real need for screening Canadian traffic to the U.S. if Canada and U.S. radiological screening overseas were coordinated in this way.

I can’t say why, but while I was at DHS we had absolutely no real expression of Canadian interest in the project (or in any of the other synchronization proposals). I personally briefed our general aviation plans to Canadian delegations on at least three occasions—but when I left DHS in January 2009, Canadian participation in a joint general aviation screening program was firmly placed on the back burner.

Maybe it is because the nature of minority government prevents co-operation of this sort. Maybe it was the product of a distrust of the Bush administration that will dissipate now that Barack Obama is president. But I suspect, as well, that it simply reflects a Canadian disposition toward the terrorism issue: if you don’t think terrorism is that important an issue, then you aren’t willing to invest the time and energy required to address the problem. And if that really is the cause of our divergence of views, it will become a permanent and enduring reality, with consequences at the border.

Finally, there is one other piece to the puzzle that must be mentioned in any candid assessment of the U.S.-Canada relationship. Since both countries, broadly speaking, seek the same social ends through the same governmental means, we have come to believe that we each are a trustworthy partner. There is a very good, historical basis for this trust. We used to say at DHS: “If the Canadians say they will do something, they’ll do it.” I’m not sure that mutual trust exists as much anymore—especially Canadian belief in American trustworthiness. Though we continue to co-operate closely and well on a tactical level (shared law enforcement investigations and the like), I and my colleagues at more senior levels had a distinct perception of distancing by our Canadian counterparts, and a notable reduction in our ability to share information across the border.

Much of this, I think, traces back to the Maher Arar incident. And here I begin to worry even more, because I cannot see reconciliation. In Canada, the belief is that Arar was mistreated. It has become so strong a belief that it has become an article of faith. This is neither the time nor the place to rehash the questions about Arar, save to make an important point that often gets lost: the U.S. is both entitled to, and obliged to, form its own judgment about Arar.

And reasonable friends may interpret facts differently. Where Canadians see an innocent 20-minute walk in the rain (according to the report issued by Justice Dennis O’Connor, who oversaw Canada’s public inquiry into the affair, on Oct. 11, 2001, Arar spent 20 minutes outside in the rain talking to an individual who was the subject of an ongoing terrorism investigation), some Americans (and the RCMP) see behaviour reminiscent of those seeking to avoid surveillance and “taking great pains not to be overheard.” A walk in the rain is, in our experience, a tactic frequently adopted by organized crime figures to avoid audio surveillance. On the basis of this conduct, and other information, I expect that Arar will continue to remain an object of U.S. concern for the indefinite future.

This is not to say that either side is necessarily right in its judgment about Arar’s activity, and it is certainly not to suggest that what Arar reports having experienced in Syria was proper treatment. But it is to say that the Canadian reaction to what is, at worst, a disagreement as to a single (albeit prominent) case does broad damage to our relationship—and that damage can have wide-ranging effects. If we do not trust each other enough, we are unlikely to find ways to bring greater openness to our borders.

But another aspect of the erosion of trust, from our side of the border, lay in Canadian public diplomacy over the potential imposition of border controls. What would be the reaction in Canada if American cabinet officials and ambassadors were personally engaged in overt efforts to lobby Parliament to change Canadian laws that Americans thought were not beneficial? Canadians would, and quite rightly, object. Yet, for nearly four years, I witnessed exactly congruent Canadian conduct—ministers and your ambassador vigorously lobbying Congress for a change in American law. On at least one occasion, the ambassador hosted a dinner at the embassy for the sole apparent purpose of having all of his guests publicly lecture the DHS officials present about how wrong-headed our policies were. Discussions that ought to have occurred between our respective executive branches were made the fodder of American politics. And that, too, erodes trust.

Indeed, given the successful implementation of the passport requirement—which by most accounts has had a modest disruptive effect on trade and travel—we can see, in retrospect, how Canadian fears caused Canadians to overreact. There is a bit of an irony here, because overreaction is supposed to be the flaw in America’s response to the terrorism threat, not the flaw in Canada’s response to America.

There is still much to be celebrated in our relationship. Despite our differences we continue to co-operate routinely in ways that no two other countries in the world are capable of doing. But that kind of relationship requires constant care and attention. For too long we’ve benefited from a lack of any challenges. Today that is changing—we have much work to do to rebuild a shared consensus and world view and recreate an atmosphere of trust. The task is not an easy one, and the first step on the road is a candid assessment of where we are. No longer can we rely on just hoping we don’t notice our differences. Instead, let’s begin to acknowledge them for what they are, with the hope and expectation that good friends can resolve them if they are willing.


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