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Beyond the Canada/U.S. border: open doors, baby steps

Because Vic Toews and Janet Napolitano like each other, Canada and the United States are about to begin building a better border.

Before the leaves start to fall, the two countries will release more than two dozen proposals aimed at easing border congestion and improving security. Beyond the Border, as it's called, will disappoint those who seek a closer economic union between Canada and the United States. And it will frighten those who suspect the Harper government of sacrificing sovereignty and privacy rights to placate the Americans.

But the deal is really nothing more or less than a set of proposals aimed at getting both countries to trust each other more. If that trust builds, baby steps will be followed by bigger steps. No Big Bang, no grand schemes. Instead, something that can actually get done.

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Barack Obama's Secretary of Homeland Security doesn't like the loosey-goosey way that Canada monitors goods and people coming into and leaving this country. She has long wanted the two countries to work co-operatively at making the continent more secure.

At first, the Conservative government had other priorities. But when Vic Toews became Public Safety Minister, he and Ms. Napolitano hit it off. They began talking about information-sharing, joint inspection, improved infrastructure.

By the summer of last year, things had reached the point where the President and the Prime Minister either had to get involved or end the conversation. Mr. Obama and Stephen Harper also get along. Both men are policy wonks who enjoy each other's company. Let's do something together, Mr. Harper proposed. They decided to do the border together.

The Canadians came to the table well prepared, according to those who know what they're talking about, but the federal election put everything on hold. The Americans, typically, spent a lot of time sorting out competing agendas within different departments. But, in recent weeks, both sides have started to work well together.

The Americans want Canada to spend money on infrastructure, especially on electronically monitoring goods and people entering the country. They want us to share more data on those goods and people. They want more and better-trained people watching for suspected terrorists or weapons.

Canada wants the United States to streamline the plethora of forms and rules that sprang up in the wake of 9/11. Businesses want to be able to pre-clear shipments at the factory so trucks can be sent across the border with minimal inspection.

Both sides are interested in making it easier for workers to take temporary assignments in the other's country; both are interested in having joint overseas inspections so cargo can be cleared or stopped before it reaches the continent, though this may be something for down the road.

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Both sides want to harmonize regulations, starting with the auto industry. Example: Either every car should have daytime headlights, or none should.

Canada will have to spend more money on this than the United States, because much of what they want us to do, they do already. Also, the majority Conservative government can get its side of the bargain passed more easily. The American deficit is enormous, and the Obama administration already has enough trouble getting a budget passed.

But even with their majority, the Conservatives will have their work cut out for them. Privacy commissioners will have something to say about joint "no fly" lists and information swaps on people and companies of interest. All of us will swallow hard at the notion of U.S. officials potentially knowing as much about us as our own government does.

But weighed against that is the knowledge that both countries will be better protected against criminals and terrorists. If the proposals work, both countries will trade with each other more. Manufacturing jobs in Southern Ontario will be more secure. And there are many votes in Southern Ontario.

This is what Barack Obama and Stephen Harper want to do together. How much of it gets done will depend on how well they sell it. Only then will we learn whether Beyond the Border is actually within reach.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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