U.S. and Canadian officials agreed Wednesday on a border action plan that calls for increasing security while speeding the flow of commerce at key crossings to protect the world's largest trade partnership.
The action plan was endorsed after two days of talks in Ottawa led by Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley.
Titled "U.S. and Canada: An Efficient, Secure and Smart Border," the plan lists steps taken by both countries and further planned measures in a coordinated effort to improve border safety after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It also focuses on preventing border traffic jams and other delays to maintain more than $1 billion a day in trade.
"There is no trade-off between our people's security and a trade-friendly border," Ridge said after signing the deal. "We need both."
"The security of our two countries will be strengthened by the action plan. A smart border will contribute to more and better jobs for both Canadians and Americans," said Manley, who heads a special government anti-terrorism committee.
Provisions include resuming a computer system that eases the entry process into both countries for low-risk, pre-approved users.
The pilot project started last November at the Blue Water Bridge connecting Point Edward, Ontario, with Port Huron, Mich., and operated jointly by the Canadian and American governments.
"We are going to work very hard to expand and use this technology across the U.S.-Canadian border," Ridge said.
Another measure would involve sharing information on passengers on flights between Canada and the United States and increase immigration officers from each country at overseas airports.
Ridge said biometrics would be used in travel documents and the systems of each country would be compatible. The technology uses a digital scan of a thumbprint, iris or hand to identify a person.
"Our goal is to do everything we can to eliminate any hassle for no-risk travelers so we can focus on stopping high-risk individuals," Ridge said.
The 30-point plan calls for new technology to clear goods in factories, rail yards and seaports instead of waiting until they reach the border crossing.
Noting that 70 percent of border traffic between the countries uses six major crossings, the plan advocates improving infrastructure and finding new technology to relieve congestion.
"Public security and economic security are mutually reinforcing," the one-page document says.
Ridge, on his first trip out of the United States since being named to a new Cabinet position introduced after the Sept. 11 attacks, praised a Canadian government proposal to spend more than $5 billion over five years for security measures and improved border facilities.
But talk of closer collaboration between the two neighbors has raised fears here that Canada's sovereignty -- especially its more liberal immigration and refugee asylum laws -- could be endangered by the U.S. focus on ighter security.
"It is not a question of ceding sovereignty. As far as I am concerned we lack sovereignty if we are poor," Manley said in response to a flood of questions about whether Ottawa was prepared to give up some control over its own affairs in return for a guarantee that trade would continue to flow freely.
"It is necessary for us to ensure that above all we are secure but secondly that we have protected the important trade flows between the two countries," he said.
But the truth is that trade between the two countries is much more important for Ottawa than it is for Washington. Some 32 percent of Canadian Gross Domestic Product is comprised of trade with the United States, while only around three percent of U.S. GDP comes from trade with Canada.
Ridge described the action plan as "a declaration between two independent sovereign (states) to work together to solve problems of mutual interest." But he admitted the two sides did not see eye to eye on everything.
"On some of these issues -- because of cultural and philosophical and political differences -- we may not share initially the same point of view... We admit going in that some of these will be problematic," he said.
"It is our goal to try to resolve all of them (the issues) sometime within the next several months... Both sides will need to be flexible in order to accomplish our mutual goals."
One demand from Washington which Canada has resisted so far is to allow armed U.S. customs and immigration agents to be stationed on Canadian soil.
Manley now says Ottawa is prepared to look at the idea, raising fresh questions about how much scope for negotiation the Canadian government actually has.
Since Sept. 11, Canada has generally conformed to U.S. security requirements to avoid harming the trade relationship both economies depend on. "I don't see any reason why we should try to resist the American desire to feel safe and secure," he said.
Canada faced accusations of being a haven for terrorists after the 1999 arrest of Ahmed Ressam as he tried to cross into the United States with explosives in his car. Ressam was convicted of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport during millennium celebrations.
Canadian officials have pointed out that none of the Sept. 11 hijackers are known to have come through Canada.
Manley and Ridge will meet early next year to review progress on implementing the action plan.
"I do not think we have accepted the idea that our policies will be determined by the United States. We will discuss things together," Manley said.
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