December 22, 2010

Perimeter with U.S. could hurt Canada’s Sovereignty: Opposition

OTTAWA — The opposition is accusing the Harper government of ceding Canadian sovereignty through a proposed deal with the United States that would establish a security perimeter around the two countries as a way to stimulate trade.

While refusing to confirm the talks, the Conservatives defended their efforts to smooth the flow of goods and people across the U.S. border, which businesses complain has been “thickening” with security red tape in recent years.

“We do in fact work in harmony and co-operation with the Americans. The Conservative government believes it’s essential that our borders with the United States be bridges between us, and not barriers,” Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told the House of Commons, adding that the government has taken action to “ensure our borders are closed to crime and open for business.”

But Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said the Conservatives can’t be trusted to stand up for Canada’s sovereignty.

“The Conservatives bowed to the Americans on softwood lumber. They asked for Washington’s approval before acting on the environment. They bought American fighter jets without inviting offers here, in Canada,” Mr. Ignatieff said. “With a record like this, how can Canadians be confident that the government will protect Canada’s sovereignty and the freedom of its citizens in their secret negotiations with the Americans on the border?”

The opposition was reacting to reports this week that the government is negotiating an agreement with the U.S. that would allow “pre-cleared” rail and truck shipments to pass more quickly across the border. The deal, which could be signed as early as January, would see the two countries harmonize regulations in certain areas, such as consumer-product safety, the National Post reported. It’s also believed the deal would involve closer co-operation on law enforcement and the screening of individuals through tools such as biometrics.

The U.S. signed a similar deal this spring with Mexico, the other signatory to the North American Free-Trade Agreement.

A representative for Canadian industry welcomed the talks, saying border bureaucracy has become a “huge issue” for companies that rely on integrated North American supply chains.

“It’s really an issue about manufacturing competitiveness in North America,” said Jayson Myers, chief executive of Manufacturers and Exporters. “What we’re seeing is more and more information requirements, more and more regulatory and compliance requirements, more and more security requirements, more and more fees being charged.”

Industry Minister Tony Clement said there’s “no question” that border thickening has affected trade between the two countries.

“We’re always concerned that homeland security in the United States always trumps everything. It trumps our trade patterns, and I know that the Americans have concerns about security, as they should, but we also have to trade with one another,” Mr. Clement told reporters.

Canada should look to other increasing integration of markets in certain regions, such as the European Union and Southeast Asia, he added. “They do a lot better job of making sure that their supply chains are more integrated, for instance. And so this is a comparative advantage they have over North America. So we’ve got to do a better job because we’re losing business to the world.”

NDP Leader Jack Layton said the security-perimeter proposal should be debated in the House of Commons before being adopted.

“Some people think that maybe Canada should be deeply integrated with the U.S., and because we watch the same TV shows, we should become the same country, virtually. I don’t agree with that, and I don’t think the majority of Canadians do,” he said.

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