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Harper fences off world to wrest open U.S. doors

President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speak in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011.

Carolyn Kaster/Carolyn Kaster/AP

Stephen Harper is promising to slap stricter security on travelers and goods in Canada's latest attempt to secure a new border deal with the U.S. -- one that would expedite Canadian trade across an American frontier that has grown congested with anti-terror measures since 9/11.

The prime minister announced during a Wednesday White House visit that Canada plans to track entries and exits as part of a perimeter security pact with the United States, a deal that requires Canadians to march in lockstep with the Americans on threat monitoring.



In return for these security concessions, Barack Obama's administration is agreeing to ease obstacles to trade plaguing Canadian businesses at the Canada-U.S. border -- a payoff that Mr. Harper is betting will mean increased commerce, jobs and economic growth.

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At the same time, Canada and the U.S. are pledging to harmonize regulations in 29 areas from food to health to eliminate minor differences that block trade.



The Conservatives bill the Obama talks as the biggest step forward in Canada-U.S. cooperation since the 1993 NAFTA deal.



But the perimeter plan is no treaty and there is no binding deal on the table for signing.



It's a work in progress that could be sunk by bureaucratic inertia or shifting political priorities -- such as the 2012 U.S. Presidential election that Mr. Obama must fight.



Still, the business community is pressing for action. Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters estimated the effort could ultimately save Canadian companies up to $30-billion a year.



It would have been impossible to negotiate this kind of deal with the U.S. while George Bush was president, but Mr. Obama's enduring popularity in Canada makes it an easier sell.



It's also a clear reminder of how central the Canada-U.S. economic relationship remains, despite Ottawa's push to sew up preferential free trade deals around the world.

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While Canada is pledging to tighten controls on screening, the Americans are promising to negotiate agreements that will "pre-clear" U.S.-bound goods and travelers from Canada that are shipped by land, rail and water -- so all can pass more quickly across the shared border.



But while Canadian business has long requested help on easing border crossings, Wednesday's deal is heavy on pilot projects and promises rather than concrete deliverables.



At the heart of this perimeter deal s the notion that the ports of Halifax, or Vancouver, for instance, form part of a common perimeter encircling North America and must be secured to the Americans' satisfaction so Washington can more readily trust shipments that enter the United States at the Canadian border.



The perimeter deal is Canada's third effort since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorism attacks to convince the Americans that bilateral commerce needs to be protected from the ever-expanding U.S. security clampdown that is clogging trade with new rules and procedures.



"Billions of dollars worth of goods and hundreds of thousands of people cross our shared border every day," Mr. Harper said.



"Moving security to the perimeter of our continent will transform our border and create jobs and growth in Canada by improving the flow of goods and people between our two countries."

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Under the perimeter-security plan, Canada has committed to increasingly sharing with the United States the security intelligence gathered by its police and law authorities.



Canada has also pledged to ratchet up scrutiny on foreigners – even from countries that don't need a visa to come to Canada. Citizens of countries that require no visa for Canada will be obliged complete a form before arrival that supplies what officials refer to as visa-type information .



Canada is also promising to adopt U.S.-approved bomb detection machines for luggage screening; and to a system for verifying the identities of inbound foreign travelers and goods that matches the American system



Critics say Canada is ceding autonomy over border controls to the United States in this perimeter security deal but Canadian officials say they're merely co-operating more closely with Americans.



A centre piece of this agreement, first heralded by both countries in February, is a joint entry-exit tracking system where the United States and Canada will effectively merge their land-border screening efforts on their common frontier by recording and sharing details on people crossing there.



Ottawa and Washington are also forming police and law enforcement teams to conduct joint patrols or investigations along their shared land border – an extension of an existing marine program called "Shiprider."



Officials say they hope to have deals worked out that would provide for Canadian goods to be pre-cleared by the end of 2012.



Increasing and erratic border controls, for instance, in recent years have forced companies to abandon just-in-time shipping and stockpile goods to reduce the risks of transaction delays in cross-border trade.



The agreement risks being sidelined, however, as Mr. Obama is increasingly distracted by the need to fight the 2012 presidential election campaign.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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