Canadians spend a lot of time worrying about the “thickening” border with the United States. This is for good reason. Given the importance of the US market and the sheer number of exports between the two countries, issues that thicken the border – like the requirement to use a passport or more strict rules around shipping goods – have an enormous impact on Canada’s economy.
Usually, Canadian officials complain that it is hard to get Americans to engage on this issue. So it is exceedingly frustrating when the Canadian government takes actions that thicken the border and simultaneously discouraging and encouraging when it is senior American officials have to intervene to make it thinner.
Last week, despite lobbying from the Mayor of Vancouver, the Premier of British Columbia, a number of business and tourism representatives and even conservative party caucus members, the Federal Goverment looked set on killing a program that saw a set of Border Guards pre-clearing trains that run from Vancouver to Seattle. Without this pre-clearance the trains would run much, much slower and so Amtrak, who runs the trains, said it would end the service.
It now appears that the border service was saved only after U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. ambassador to Canada David Jacobson personally intervene. Yes, you read that right. US officials were racing trying to persuade Canadian officials to keep the border more open. The problematic nature of such a headline cannot be underscored. Yes, it is great that senior officials in the US care about ensure the Canada-US border remains as open as possible. But, as a country still dependent on an open and friction free border with the Unites States it is disturbing their intervention was necessary.
Indeed, as the country with the most to suffer when the border gets thicker (we feel the loss of exports and trade more than the Americans do) we need to model behaviour and be a leader in striving to make it as open and as accessible as possible. Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. ambassador to Canada David Jacobson intervention now means that two senior US officials may now believe that Canada’s commitment to friction free and accessible border is not as strong as we have claimed. If we aren’t concerned here, maybe we aren’t as concerned on other, even greater areas of concern regarding the increased thickening of the Canada-US border.
And the damage has not been undone. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who is responsible for the decision, has only only preserved the service for one year. Indeed, in his statement he added “In this period of time, the residents of British Columbia and Washington State primarily will demonstrate whether, in fact, this is a necessary service.” Of course, the second train has already doubled the number of people traveling via rail between the two cities and, according to BC’s transportation minister, has injected $11.8 million into the BC economy.
Canadians should be thrilled that Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and the government ultimately made the right decision around keeping this service in place. But as a country still concerned about the weakened economy, the US border and our relationship with the United States, we should be concerned that the government took the most painful and costly route to arrive at this decision.