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Sales pitch begins on border deal: we'll catch more EI cheats

As Canada inks a massive new border deal with the US, critics and boosters argue about privacy and trade.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As Prime Minister Stephen Harper heads to Washington this week to formally sign a perimeter security deal with the U.S, details -- and the sales pitch for the controversial arrangement -- have begun to leak.

Until now, it's been sold largely as a way to secure the perimeter of North America and allow trade to flow more freely across the internal continental border between Canada and America.

But as concerns have grown over sovereignty and privacy issues, more benefits of the plan are being floated. This weekend, it was a former Canadian diplomat confirming that it will be easier for Canada to hunt down people who claim unemployment insurance and then leave the country -- or landed immigrants who are supposed to be living here, but aren't.

The Canadian Press has the story:

OTTAWA -- Canada will gain enhanced powers to track unemployment insurance recipients who skip the country and landed immigrants who don't spend enough time here to meet residency requirements under the new perimeter security deal with the U.S.

But the increased muscle will come with a $1-billion price tag, says a former Canadian diplomat who has spoken to negotiators of the Beyond the Border deal that is to be announced on Wednesday when Prime Minister Stephen Harper travels to the White House.

A new entry-exit system for people crossing the 49th parallel by land will be a key feature of the deal, and will represent a landmark change for Canada, Colin Robertson, an ex-diplomat who has served in Washington, said Sunday.

The federal government doesn't keep track of who actually leaves Canada. But the U.S. has been pressing Ottawa for years to start collecting that data as an added security measure.

The issue is contentious because some critics argue it poses a threat to Canadian sovereignty.

But the government will argue that it is good for Canada because of the expanded powers to crackdown on bogus employment insurance recipients and fraudulent migrants who haven't spent enough time in Canada to gain official residency status, said Robertson.

Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama announce the deal Wednesday, nearly 10 months after kickstarting the new plan that aims to protect the continent from terrorist threats while speeding the flow of people and products across the border.

The Canadian Press first reported exactly two months ago that the pact would cost Canadians $1 billion for new border facilities and programs to make trade and travel easier.

Robertson said he has been told it will cost around that amount to implement the data collection system of the new entry-exit provisions.

The measure would address concerns that some migrants are abusing Canada's hospitality by not staying here the required two full years in a five-year period to keep their permanent resident status.

"Now we'll be able to track that,'' said Robertson, along with Canadians collecting EI while living in the U.S.

"If you're supposed to be a resident of the country and you've gone down to Florida for six months, we're going to have that information now.''

Currently. the Canadian border agency collects such information to a limited degree through customs declaration forms filled out by returning air travellers.

The new provisions would bring Canada in line with the United Kingdom, Australia and the European Union.

Robertson stressed that he has not seen the final Canada-U.S. agreement, but he has learned of its main contents for an article he wrote for publication on Tuesday in Policy Options magazine. Other sources familiar with the agreement have also briefed The Canadian Press on the main points of the deal.

Under the new deal, Robertson explained, Canada would give data to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on land travellers who have exited the U.S.

Under a reciprocal arrangement, the U.S. would provide Canadian authorities with information on who is leaving Canada, he said.

"We will keep separate regimes,'' said Robertson. Canada and the U.S. will not become like the European Union, where once you enter one country you can go anywhere.

"We'll maintain different visa policies, because that's not where we're headed. We're not moving to full labour mobility.''

Harper and Obama are also expected to announce an agreement to improve the access roads on both sides of the border, said Robertson.

"Because it's fine to have this fast passage at the border, but if the roads are all clogged as you go in, then again that reduces the effect. What you're trying to do is improve your competitiveness.''

In his forthcoming article, Robertson acknowledges that the entry-exit system "is likely to be difficult for Canadians'' and that it will "become a target for nationalists and civil liberties groups.''

He writes that the sovereignty issue is a "perennial cause of the Council of Canadians,'' which has opposed free trade deals with the U.S. and Mexico.

A summary of public consultations conducted by the government -- posted on the Foreign Affairs Department website -- says Canadian businesses wanted greater access to the U.S. market, to "simplify, expand and harmonize existing trade facilitation programs, and called for further streamlining of the border process.''

But consultations also touched on the sovereignty issue:

"Concerns about loss of privacy, the impact of greater collaboration between Canada and the United States and a desire for more information were common themes in the comments submitted online, although many Canadians also expressed support for steps that would expedite the movement of people across the border for tourism or travel.''

In his article, Robertson refers to the concerns raised by federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, who recently blogged: "Rather than jumping into a newly defined relationship with both feet, we should only do so with both eyes wide open.''

Stoddart also wrote that, "if we compare a security perimeter agreement to a marriage and Canadian negotiators wish to enable Canadians to keep control of their personal information, a clear line on privacy needs to be written into a strong 'pre-nup.'''

Robertson said the new regime won't be any different than the kind of passport information Canadians already give up when they board an airplane.

"Her world is simply privacy,'' said Robertson. "I choose to give up a certain degree of privacy for faster entry and exit from the United States.''

The pact is the latest attempt in a decade-long effort since the 9-11 attacks to make the Canada-U.S. border work more efficiently, while guarding against terrorist threats.

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