When the hyperbole is cleared away, Justin Trudeau’s pilgrimage to Washington has produced one clear result.
Canada’s new Liberal government says it will push through a long-delayed plan to share with Washington biographic and other information on Canadian citizens travelling overland to the U.S.
The Americans, in turn, will reciprocate.
Many of the other announcements made last week, such as the joint Canada-U.S. agreement to reduce methane gas emissions, may founder on the shoals of American politics.
There is no guarantee that U.S. President Barack Obama’s successor, whoever he or she may be, will have the same interest in battling climate change.
But in the U.S., national security is a touchstone that crosses party lines. And in national security terms, Canada is considered suspect.
Many prominent Americans, including Obama’s first homeland security chief, Janet Napolitano, have insisted — contrary to all factual evidence — that the 9/11 attackers came though Canada.
I doubt that any American politician would turn down Ottawa’s offer to give U.S. national security agencies more information on Canadians.
Perhaps appropriately, the announcement that both sides were pressing ahead with information sharing was made Thursday not by Canada’s prime minister but by Obama.
Is any of this a problem for Canadians? In the short run, the answer is probably no. The Canada Border Service Agency already gives its American counterpart information on third-country citizens and Canadian permanent residents travelling by land to the U.S.
But in most cases, according to the CBSA, the information includes only basic identifiers such as name, date of birth and port of entry.
In the longer run, as successive federal privacy commissioners have pointed out, information sharing can be more dangerous.
In 2011, then privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart pointed to the Maher Arar case, in which Canada’s sharing of faulty information with the U.S. led to the arrest, rendition and torture of an innocent Canadian citizen.
She also cited the cases of three other Muslim Canadians who had been subject to torture abroad in part because of Canada’s too-casual approach to sharing information.
On Friday, Daniel Therrien, the current federal privacy commissioner, said he won’t comment on this week’s announcement about information sharing until he sees what precisely the government is proposing.
The new system was to have been in place last July. But like much else in the Beyond the Border program, which was announced with much fanfare five years ago, it ran into delays.
Designed as a way to reconcile Canada’s economic needs with America’s national security preoccupations, Beyond the Border was an attempt to create a kind of wall around North America.
For Canada, the primary aim was to minimize delays at border crossings that might interfere with Canada-U.S. trade.
For the U.S., the primary aim was to secure its borders.
Among other measures, the two countries agreed to deploy joint law enforcement teams along the frontier.
But as the Canadian Press reported earlier this month, the plan kept running into practical problems. For instance, whose jurisdiction would apply if an American FBI agent shot and killed a suspect on Canadian soil?
More to the point, the two sides remain fundamentally at loggerheads over the very nature of the Canada-U.S. border.
Ottawa wants what it calls a thin border to allow easy passage of people and goods back and forth. As evidenced by last week’s announcement, it is willing to sacrifice some of the privacy of its citizenry in return for this.
Washington, however, wants a thick border that would make it harder for terrorists to enter the U.S.
So while it is happy to receive information from Ottawa and even give back some in return, it is not willing to substantially relax its guard.
For those Canadians still willing to travel to the U.S., the result promises to be the worst of both worlds — a greater chance of being mistakenly added to one of those impossible-to-escape American security lists, and a still difficult border.