OTTAWA—Armed U.S. police officers will for the first time be allowed to operate in Canada along with the RCMP as part of far-reaching changes in Canadian-American border operations to be unveiled next week by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama.
The joint action plan to be announced at the White House will also break new ground by introducing exit-entry records that will track the movements of everyone who leaves the United States or Canada, with the information available to authorities in both countries.
In the months and years ahead, the deal between Ottawa and Washington will reshape security, travel and commercial arrangements at the border in a variety of profound ways — some of which have already raised alarms among Canadians.
The agreement, which has been the subject of confidential negotiations since last winter, is intended to reverse the economically damaging border tie-ups that have been growing since Sept. 11, 2001, while upgrading anti-crime and anti-terrorist security for both countries.
In contrast to the silence from Canadian negotiators, some U.S. officials have been open about what the new reality at the border will look like in the years ahead.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder revealed last fall that the deal will authorize Canada and the U.S. to designate officers who can take part in police investigations on both sides of the border. The pilot project, Holder said, will improve the two countries’ ability to deal with the “unprecedented” threats along the border from terrorists, human smugglers, illegal firearms traffickers and drug dealers.
The model for the joint policing program is the Shiprider project, a three-year-old plan under which the RCMP and U.S. Coast Guard join forces and ride in each others’ vessels when patrolling boundary waters.
As part of the measures to improve security and streamline border practices, the Beyond the Border blueprint is also expected to include greatly increased information-sharing between Canada and the U.S., including the exit-entry plan.
This secretly devised shake-up of border operations has sparked widespread concerns.
“It’s contemptuous of Canadian citizenry to unveil a program in which we’ve had essentially no input,” said Micheal Vonn, policy director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.
“This process has really been conducted behind closed doors. We’ve had no white papers, no reports — nothing that we could point to to say, ‘Here are the pros and cons, here are the drawbacks, here are the things we are considering,’ ” she said.
Vonn said the call for comment by Foreign Affairs earlier this year was not a real consultation, because it was based on the loosely worded framework agreement for a border overhaul signed by Harper and Obama in February — not the actual pact negotiated in the months since by officials from Ottawa and Washington.
Still, Foreign Affairs’ consultation exercise drew 1,000 individual responses, nearly half from Canadians who opposed further integration of cross-border law enforcement. Exchanging more personal data across the border also worried individuals who responded to the proposed Canada-U.S. deal.
“Their submissions generally questioned the need to share more information, and they sought assurance that any information sharing would be governed by Canadian privacy laws and that practices and procedures would respect the due process of law and Canada’s civil liberties,” according to a summary of the submissions compiled by Foreign Affairs.
These fears have been underscored by the federal privacy commissioner’s office, which told Foreign Affairs “the experiences of many Canadians in recent years at border crossings and airports highlight ongoing concerns over the protection of privacy rights while travelling.”
This has ranged from increased instances of individuals being delayed, detained or denied entry to the United States to “the tragic rendition of a Canadian citizen to torture in Syria,” the commission said, in a reference to Maher Arar. The Syrian-born Canadian citizen was held and tortured in Syria after being detained and sent there in 2002 by U.S. authorities. “Maher Arar, despite having been cleared of any wrongdoing in Canada, remains on the U.S. no fly list to this day,” the commission said in its June submission.
Assistant privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier said it’s crucial that the agreement include measures that give Canadians a recourse to challenge or correct personal information in border data bases that they believe to be erroneous.
“In any agreement, Canadian privacy protections and practices need to be protected,” Bernier added. “For instance, if there is a lower standard or higher standard of privacy at play, the higher standard has to win out. And in general, our sovereignty needs protection as this unfolds.”
Another question, she said, is whether the U.S. gives as high a priority to protecting personal information as Canada, which has a privacy watchdog reporting directly to Parliament. “The United States does not have a privacy commissioner,” she noted in an interview.
Stuart Trew, trade campaigner with the Ottawa-based Council of Canadians, said further integration of Canada and U.S. police operations is worrisome at a time when Canadians are still waiting for the establishment of recommended controls on information-sharing by Canadian police and intelligence agencies.
“The mechanism for holding the U.S. agents accountable is vague,” he said of the joint policing project included in the border deal. “It’s difficult to know how you would file a complaint, for example, against a U.S. agent and whether there is any accountability in that respect.”
Government officials point out that the joint policing plan will be modelled after the Shiprider cross-border marine policing plan, which requires a Canadian officer to be in charge when the team of mixed U.S. and Canadian police are operating in Canada, and vice-versa on the American side.
“The Prime Minister and the president did say that, of course, even though we would be cooperating in certain areas, our respective jurisdictions and laws would apply, whether that’s our law here, the Charter, etc., or Canada’s privacy rules,” said Andrew MacDougall, a spokesperson for Harper. “Each country would respect its standards on that front. You can look for greater cooperation while respecting our own national laws and standards.”
Besides security, the agreement expected to be announced in Washington on Dec. 7 will cover a wide range of measures on border infrastructure, harmonized product standards, intelligence-gathering and commercial transport.
In a major step to ease border congestion, U.S. officials say next week’s deal will authorize pilot projects in the Ontario cities of Sarnia and Fort Erie for pre-screening of cargo before it reaches nearby U.S. customs facilities. By inspecting shipments away from the border, officials hope that most of the pre-cleared trucks could move quickly through customs when crossing into the U.S.
The agreement is also expected to earmark $1 billion for investment in improved border posts, call for harmonized information requirements on both sides of the border and improve trusted travelers programs such as NEXUS.