Civil liberties, privacy groups cry foul as PM hails historic border deal

Locking out terrorists, boosting trade and travel are worth it, Harper argues.

Vancouver Observer photo illustration by David P. Ball.

As thousands of Canadians head to the U.S. for holiday shopping this month – and retailers import millions of dollars of goods for the season -- the idea of quicker border crossings and reducing choke points between the two countries might seem appealing.
 
Announcing a sweeping Canada-U.S. deal today, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the historic agreement strikes a balance between improving trade and increasing the national security of both countries, even if it means sharing more information, some of it personal data, between the two nations.
 
“The key that locks the door against terrorists also opens a wider gate to cross-border trade and travel,” he told reporters at the White House, where he and U.S. President Barack Obama announced “Beyond the Borders” -- the most significant U.S.-Canada agreement since the 1994 North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
 
But a raft of civil liberties, human rights and privacy protection advocates are raising concerns. A coalition of the Council of Canadians, the B.C. and Canadian civil liberties associations, the Rideau Institute and other groups oppose the deal, saying it threatens Canadians' privacy and civil liberties and defers to U.S. standards of national security.
 
And though the agreement will not come into effect until the new year -- with dozens of pilot projects rolling out to speed up crossings and strengthen security – the groups are zeroing in on intelligence sharing and national security aspects of the plan.
 
“Basically, it's surrendering a lot of decision-making on who is legitimate and who isn't, who is allowed into the country or not -- it's surrendering to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security,” said Stuart Trew, trade campaigner with the Council of Canadians, a citizen advocacy group claiming 100,000 members across the country. “It essentially converges with U.S. security systems – but also (adopts) their way of thinking about risk, adopting the same mentality.
 
“In many ways, it's worse than what we were expecting. We knew it was coming, but speaking to civil liberties organizations, it's a wholesale adoption of United States norms – whether it comes to no-fly lists, the types of information that are going to be shared, we're basically harmonizing in those areas.”
 
Trew told the Vancouver Observer that although streamlining commercial flows and investing in border infrastructure “sound pretty good,” the package as a whole is dangerous because it erodes Canadians' privacy. He cited the example of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen the U.S. deported to Syria in 2002, where he was tortured. In 2007, the Canadian government cleared him of suspicion, apologized and awarded him $10.5 million.

 
“There's no way to control how the United States uses information we share with them,” he said. “Look at example of Maher Arar – he's still considered a risk in the U.S. even though he's been cleared in Canada.
 
“It's the package itself we're stuck with,” he said. “You cannot trade privacy for small economic gains at border.”
 
The deal includes sharing intelligence on people entering and leaving both countries, identifying “radicalized” individuals as security concerns, allowing U.S. and Canadian armed police to operate on cross-border teams, sharing a single perimeter for cargo screening and speeding up border crossings with fast lanes and more easily accessed pass-cards.

A representative of B.C. trucking industry said that, with trucks making up the majority of cross-border transport, cargo pre-inspections and harmonized administration of things like permits will help reduce delays at the border.

"This is a 'really good news' story," Louise Yako, president of the B.C. Trucking Assocation, told the Vancouver Observer. "The U.S. is still our biggest trading partner -- anything we can do to smooth out that partnership is going to benefit Canadians and Americans.

"Any time we can expedite truck traffic through the border, it's going to be an improvement for carriers. This is a very positive step -- it will definitely help to improve efficiency and make better use of border resources."

Harper and Obama insisted that the deal will benefit security and trade, with minimal impact on national sovereignty and civil liberties. 

“Addressing threats at the earliest possible point is essential to strengthening the shared security of our countries and (enabling) us to improve the free flow of legitimate goods and people across the Canada-United States border," the joint action plan stated.
 
"Canada has no friends among America's enemies," Prime Minister Harper said during the announcement. "What threatens the security and well-being of the U.S. threatens the security and well-being of Canada.

"Nevertheless, measures to deal with criminal and terrorist threats can thicken the border, hindering our efforts to create jobs and growth."

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