Northern exposure

Northern exposure

To what extent is Canada a reliable partner of the U.S. in matters of trade security? With Canada the United States' largest trading partner, it's not an idle question. Basically, it would not be accurate to say that even with the extensive U.S.-Canada efforts to secure supply chains between the two countries, everyone is completely happy.

A reality of the post-Sept. 11 world is that any U.S. trading relationship must embody a demonstrable commitment on the part of both nations to trade security. But achieving that is easier said than done, in large part because other countries, since they weren't the ones attacked, don't feel the same vulnerability and urgency as the U.S. does to tighten things up at the border.

Canada, it should be clearly stated, has not been a laggard in efforts to secure bilateral trade flows. Following the Smart Border Declaration signed in December 2001, the two nations moved out jointly and at lightning speed (for governments) to create the FAST system for rapid clearance of trucks crossing the border. Cargo handled by an approved driver, trucking company and shipper now crosses FAST-operational border points in as few as 15 seconds.

Eighty-five percent of the vehicles that cross the border are passenger vehicles, and difficulty in creating a similar system for their drivers has contributed to long lines at the two-lane approaches to border stations, says James Phillips, president and chief executive of the Canadian/American Border Trade Alliance. But Phillips and many others agree that this unfinished business should not obscure the genuine progress that the creation and deployment of the FAST system represents. In addition, it's expected that Customs' upcoming requirement for advance information on manifests for ground and air cargo will be implemented with full cooperation from Canadian authorities.

Similar, and perhaps more significantly in assessing Canada's degree of partnership with the U.S., is the situation with regard to ocean cargo. On the basis of a handshake agreement in February 2002 between Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner and his Canadian counterpart, CCRI Commissioner Bob Wright, Canada agreed to allow U.S. Customs agents to be stationed at its seaports - the first experiment in what became the Container Security Initiative, now in place in 18 of the top 20 ports by volume of U.S. exports. The U.S. and Canada more or less jointly took the CSI concept to the G-8 summit in Kananaskis, Alberta, last June, and came away with a declaration in support of the concept. And now Canada has agreed to implement its own 24-hour advance-manifest rule, the only other nation to do so.

In addition, black holes in information associated with so-called in-transit cargo that is unloaded at Canadian ports but is destined for the U.S. are being rapidly eliminated. These shipments are estimated to comprise more than 5 percent of all U.S. inbound containers. Most - but not all - carriers calling at Canadian ports now voluntarily submit manifest information electronically and in advance of arrival, and indicate which shipments are in-transit. Neither was the case until about 10 weeks ago.

Despite those successes, the U.S. wants to go further. Remember the perimeter concept floated in the aftermath of Sept. 11? It hasn't gone away. In principle, a "perimeter" means Canada would subject its imports and inbound passengers to the same level of intense and sometimes invasive scrutiny that U.S. authorities do, something Canada doesn't do today.

U.S. officials aren't just concerned about what is coming directly into the U.S. or even what's transshipped into the U.S. through Canada. They worry that Canada might be used as a way station for cargo before a final dash into the U.S. The U.S. took notice of that individual nabbed in Italy inside a well-appointed, Canada-bound container. Stowaways showing up inside containers in Halifax are a potential threat, because the two countries share the longest undefended border in the world. But unlike CSI, which relates to shipments in which the U.S. has a direct interest, this issue isn't the same. It involves Canada's internal policies and its own relationships with other countries. Canada, despite its proximity and longstanding ties and similarities to the U.S., doesn't feel threatened in the same way, and doesn't have the same relationship with the rest of the world. Canadians see themselves as peacekeepers and the Maple Leaf an image of friendship and tolerance. Though they're linked closely to Americans economically, they're not Americans, and don't want to be seen as being patsies to American demands. Could that upset this productive relationship?