The post-9-11 border debate

Jim Bronskill
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An Air Canada plane is shown landing at Pearson Airport in Toronto in 2009. — THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

OTTAWA — Hamoud can no longer travel to the United States, and the middle-aged Calgary businessman says he doesn’t know why.

He’s one of many Canadians who now think twice before they head to the U.S. — or can’t go there at all — because of post-9-11 security restrictions.

“The whole thing has just been a nightmare, really,” he said in an interview.

Hamoud spoke to The Canadian Press on condition his full name not be published out of fear it would only make his travel problems worse.

After going to the United States many times over the decades, he and his daughters had to cancel a spring 2010 vacation in New York and Florida because the U.S. Homeland Security Department did not clear him for entry.

Five days after returning home from the airport, Hamoud was visited by two Canadian Security Intelligence Service officers who asked lots of questions. But even they couldn’t figure out why the U.S. had barred him.

He says he’s not involved in criminal or extremist activity, and still has no answers from the Americans.

Hamoud has missed six business events in the U.S. — no-shows that are taking their toll on his company. He has also had difficulty flying within Canada, as Air Canada consults the U.S. no-fly list even for domestic flights.

Hamoud’s lawyers have taken up his case with the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. But he says there is no guarantee he will be allowed into the U.S.

“It really demeans an individual.”

Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations, said his group still receives reports from Muslims about difficulty crossing the border.

“When I speak to members of the community, some of them do express a concern about travelling,” he said.

“They may choose to travel to different destinations as a result of this.”

The 49th parallel, once known as the world’s longest undefended border, is now littered with security-related stumbling blocks.

Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart says the long-standing free pass the Americans once granted their polite northern neighbours has been withdrawn as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“I think that Canada’s in a difficult place,” she said in an interview.

“What you’re seeing over the decade is the move by the United States to impose the values of border surveillance that it uses (for) the rest of the world increasingly on Canadians.”

The scrutiny is likely to intensify as Canada pursues a perimeter security pact with the United States. The idea is to beef up continental screening, with the notion that once people and goods have won passage into North America, there will be less need to examine them at the Canada-U.S. border.

Opponents say Canada faces an erosion of sovereignty and weaker control over personal information about Canadians by forging such a deal.

Some point to the case of Maher Arar, the Ottawa communications engineer who was shipped to Syria and tortured into false terrorism confessions in an abysmal Damascus prison after the RCMP passed inflammatory information about him to the Americans.

“It’s not just the sharing of the information with the U.S. that we’re concerned about,” Gardee said. “Who is the U.S. sharing this information with?”

Stoddart recently told the government that Canadians won’t accept weaker protection of their personal details simply to win a perimeter security deal.

She says Canadian officials “are extremely mindful” of what’s at stake, having consulted her office three times to date on the perimeter issues.

But she believes a more laissez-faire approach to privacy south of the border may see the two countries differ on key points, including where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists, what exactly constitutes personal information, and the legal implications of transferring such data to third parties.

“I would be concerned that we move more towards an American-style model of collecting personal information,” Stoddart said.

“The Americans have fewer checks on sharing information — so that tidbits of our lives from everywhere would be increasingly pulled together in accordance with an American model rather than a Canadian model, which tends to segregate the information for privacy purposes and share only on a ’needs-to-know’ basis.”

One goal of a security deal is an entry-exit database that would track individuals as they arrive in or leave either Canada or the U.S. — information that would be shared between the countries.

Such a system could include cross-border flow of biometric data — personal identifiers like fingerprints or iris scans.

Stoddart warns such innovations are not a panacea.

“We know there is no technological system that is failsafe and foolproof. So we are watching this very, very carefully.”

A recent summary of consultations on the perimeter security proposal carried out by the government says some Canadians were hesitant about sharing more traveller information with the U.S.

“These concerns centred on the loss of sovereignty, the protection of personal information shared between the two countries, and a general sentiment that not enough was known about the proposed measures.”

A poll conducted for the privacy commissioner by Harris-Decima found that about four in five Canadians would be at least somewhat concerned if Canada started sharing more information than it currently does with the United States.

But since 9-11 the practice has been quietly mushrooming behind the scenes. Consider that:

— Millions of Canadians have acquired passports and other secure identification documents in recent years to ensure they can still travel to the United States — spelling an end to the simple verbal declaration of citizenship;

— The U.S. Secure Flight program will allow collection of name, gender and birth date from the approximately five million Canadians who fly through American airspace every year en route to destinations such as the Caribbean and Mexico — even though their planes don’t touch American soil;

— The government admits Canadian air passengers labelled a “high risk” to security have no way of directly challenging confidential profiles the United States compiles about them — even when the files contain data from Canada.

A June 2006 audit by Stoddart’s office raised concerns about lax controls at the Canada Border Services Agency. “The CBSA cannot, with a reasonable degree of certainty, report either on the extent to which it shares personal information with the United States, or how much and how often it does so.”

Lorne Lawson, director general of the border agency’s risk assessment programs directorate, has met with counterparts in Washington at U.S. Customs and Border Protection to discuss enhanced information sharing.

The border agency refused to make Lawson, or any other official, available to discuss the initiatives. Nor would Foreign Affairs, the lead agency on the perimeter security talks, grant an interview about the negotiations.

As a result, it’s unclear whether — or how — such plans might help unclog the thickening border.

All the while, the United States has been adding, not peeling back, the layers.

Over the last two years, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has made what it calls “critical security improvements along the northern border,” adding inspectors at the ports of entry and Border Patrol agents between ports, as well as refurbishing land crossings.

Nearly 3,800 Customs and Border Protection officers scrutinize people and goods at crossings, the department says.

The number of Border Patrol agents along the northern parallel has increased 700 per cent since 9-11.

And some three dozen land ports of entry are being modernized.

Stoddart, whose family has long had a farm in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, remembers something quite different 20 years ago when driving into Vermont with her two young children.

“They got ice cream cones and I got a newspaper,” she recalls. “You would actually cross a field in which cows grazed.”

At the gate was a sign: Entering U.S. territory, please check in at the nearest border post.

“That’s a good memory, but that’s a long time ago and it’s not going to come back in the foreseeable future.”

Organizations: Canadian Press, Homeland Security Department, Canadian Security Intelligence Service Air Canada Canadian Council RCMP Canada Border Services Agency Border Patrol U.S. Secure Flight US Customs Foreign Affairs U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Geographic location: United States, Canada, OTTAWA Calgary New York Florida North America Syria Damascus Caribbean Mexico Washington Eastern Townships Quebec Vermont Entering U.S.

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