Guest Editorial -- Border problems

 

Guest Editorial
 

Why Canadians are right to worry about border deal

 
By Thomas Walkom
The Toronto Star

Americans are puzzled by the reluctance of so many Canadians to have personal information shared with Washington. They should not be. Our fears are rational. The United States makes us nervous.

This is not because we think Americans terrible people. We don’t. Americans are our friends. In many cases, they are our relatives.

But since 9/11, their government has played fast and loose with the rights of its own citizens. Is it any wonder that we worry about Washington doing the same or worse to us?

The issue has resurfaced with this week’s border agreement between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama. The agreement requires Canada to adopt more U.S.-style security measures — and share more information on Canadians with the U.S.

In exchange, Obama has agreed to ask the U.S. Congress for money to speed up truck and business traffic across the border.

Criticisms of the border pact are usually described in terms of privacy. But privacy is a remarkably anodyne term for what is at stake.

It’s not that Canadians are unusually modest. It is that the U.S. has such a terrible record of misusing information.

Start with the grossly flawed U.S. no-fly list that, under the deal, Canada has effectively agreed to adopt. This is the list that famously targeted, among others, the late U.S. senator Ted Kennedy.

Some perfectly law-abiding Canadians have already been barred from air travel within their own country because their planned flight paths briefly crossed the U.S.

The agreement to develop common “decision processes” for air screening can only lead to more being stranded.

Since the deal was announced Wednesday, attention has focused on a new scheme for border exit controls. U.S. ambassador David Jacobson says, correctly in my view, that this particular concern is overblown.

The real danger areas are elsewhere. For instance, the agreement commits the two countries to engage in more “informal information sharing.”

Canada also agrees to change its laws, if necessary, to “provide the widest measure of (intelligence) cooperation possible.”

Does this matter? Ask Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen arrested by the Americans on a New York stopover and sent to Syria to be tortured.

As a royal commission later found, Arar’s troubles were caused by exactly the kind of informal and wide-ranging intelligence cooperation that the new deal envisions.

At another time in history, a decision to expand information-sharing between Canada and the U.S. might not have mattered. In terms of basic civil liberties, America was our equal or better.

No more. As a result of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has suffered a kind of psychotic break. It spies on the most mundane habits of its people, such as which library books they read. In at least one case, it has carried out the extrajudicial execution of an American citizen.

Its agents are no longer permitted to torture people on their own. But even Obama has refused to renounce the practice of so-called extraordinary rendition — sending suspected terrorists to third countries to be tortured.

It maintains a prison camp at Guantanamo Bay that, in the understated language of a 2010 Supreme Court judgment, has engaged in the “improper treatment” of detainees — including a Canadian.

So yes, many Canadians are uneasy about this border deal. As former supreme court justice Frank Iacobucci found when he looked into the arrest and torture of three Canadian citizens abroad, we have enough trouble with our own security agencies. To make it even easier for the Americans to track us is madness.

Thomas Walkom’s column appears Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.

 

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