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Canada, U.S. got smart about border 20 years ago, but not smart enough, say critics

WASHINGTON — The frontier between Canada and the United States used to be known as the world's longest "undefended" border — a misnomer that largely vanished in the chaos of Sept. 11, 2001.

WASHINGTON — The frontier between Canada and the United States used to be known as the world's longest "undefended" border — a misnomer that largely vanished in the chaos of Sept. 11, 2001.

Other myths cropped up in its place, however: that al-Qaida's operatives crossed it to mount their brazen attacks on Washington and New York, for instance. Or that the shared management of the Canada-U.S. border was a shining example of bilateral harmony at work. 

Dispelling the first one took years of relentless effort on the part of countless diplomatic officials. The COVID-19 pandemic made short work of the second. 

"Clearly, we are not on the same page" when it comes to how the border has been managed during the pandemic, said Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. 

"The degree to which we're moving in a tandem fashion on how we're managing the border has completely gone out the window. The difference with 9/11 was the U.S. obviously drove that response, but Canada went along with it in a pretty close relationship." 

In fact, Canada had little choice in the matter 20 years ago when the U.S., — suddenly finding itself on a war footing with no idea when the next attack might come — promptly closed ranks, grounded commercial air travel and slammed shut its borders.  

"Immediately, Alert 1 status," recalled Michael Kergin, who was Canada's ambassador to the U.S. at the time. "Closed the border completely. Sealed it."

The consequences were swift and costly: stateside-bound semi-trailer trucks, many carrying Canadian-made auto parts to American factories, began piling up, forming queues dozens of kilometres deep. In Ontario, the spillover soon began to clog the 401, Canada's busiest highway. 

As fate would have it, Kergin happened to be friendly with Andy Card, the White House chief of staff under George W. Bush who was not only secretary of transportation in the previous Bush administration, but spent the intervening years as a powerful auto-industry lobbyist.

Card — the man who famously whispered, "America is under attack" into the president's ear — knew the likely repercussions of a shuttered border. Kergin knew his phone number.

"I never thought his cellphone would operate," Kergin recalled. 

"It did, and we then started a process to lessen the jamming at the border to get some initial things through so that customs people could start letting the trucks go through." 

Fate and Kergin's Rolodex again conspired on Canada's behalf not long after when another longtime acquaintance, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, was tapped to head up the new Department of Homeland Security. 

Kergin knew Ridge had championed the modernization of rural Pennsylvania as governor, a cause that was near to the heart of former industry minister John Manley, whom then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had recently promoted to the post of Foreign Affairs.

"They bonded well and got along extremely well," Kergin said. "Within about three months, we had a pretty good formula for mitigating the adverse reactions on the border."

That formula would produce the Smart Border Declaration, a bilateral handshake that became the foundation for new high-tech clearance features to expedite and streamline commercial and business travel while fortifying security.

The modern-day dedicated shipping lanes, trusted-traveller programs like NEXUS and Global Entry and pre-screening systems for cargo are among today's commonplace fixtures of moving between Canada and the U.S. that owe their existence to the original agreement. 

Two decades later, that co-operation is a big reason why essential workers, trade shipments and foreign students were allowed across the border during the pandemic, despite restrictions on discretionary travel like vacations and cross-border shopping trips.

"It was easier to close down in the way they did in 2020 by virtue of the systems that have been put in place since 9/11," said Roy Norton, a former senior diplomat who was an assistant deputy minister in the Ontario government at the time. 

But the sense of mutual co-operation during the pandemic evaporated last month when Canada began allowing non-essential travel for fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Other foreign nationals who have had a full course of a Health Canada-approved vaccine can enter starting Tuesday. 

The U.S., however, has yet to reciprocate, citing the Delta variant of COVID-19 in extending its land-border restrictions until at least Sept. 21. 

Grassroots campaigns by residents and businesses in communities close to the border have sprung up in recent months, clamouring in vain for the Biden administration to begin allowing non-essential travel at land crossings between the U.S. and Canada.  

Non-essential travellers can enter the U.S. from Canada by air, in part because of the rules and regulations imposed by airlines, but that's been of little comfort to families in places like Windsor or Fort Erie, Ont., with family members a five-minute drive away in Detroit or Buffalo  

"In the U.S. right now, we have a situation where the Department of Homeland Security doesn't want to deal with health data at the border, but the Centers for Disease Control is basically saying, 'We can't just let people in willy-nilly,'" Trautman said. 

"I think there's a lot of institutional memory that's been lost, not just over the last 20 years, but over the last four to five years." 

The solution, Trautman said, is some sort of permanent oversight presence within the government bureaucracy that would keep border issues at the forefront of U.S. policy decisions. 

"Whether it's an expert panel or a commission or whatever it is, something with some longevity and some historical knowledge that can advocate for the border," she said. 

"To a certain extent, they're just sort of falling to the bottom of the priority list. If you had an ongoing structure to handle these sorts of things, they would get dealt with much more efficiently and much more deliberately." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 4, 2021. 

James McCarten, The Canadian Press