On February 4, 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper travelled to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Barack Obama.
Together, they issued a joint declaration titled: Beyond the Border: a shared vision for perimeter security and economic effectiveness. Although in essence it’s only a roadmap for future negotiations, the issue has been in the Canadian press for months, politicians have been protesting on all sides, and a federal election might well be fought over the matter — a la free trade in 1988. What’s it all about, and what impact might it all have on Canada, the economy, the woodworking industry, and even our rights as citizens?
Many of us grew up learning that Canada and the United States share the longest unprotected border in the world. 9/11 changed all that, and the evidence has become familiar to many Canadians: long line-ups at airports and border crossings, stifled trade between the two countries, and growing calls to do something about it. As Jean-Philippe Brunet, chair of the business immigration and international mobility team at the law firm Ogilvy Renault in Montreal, describes the situation: “What many people don’t realize is that it’s not just 9/11. It’s also about globalization. People and goods move so frequently across borders, and governments want to know who and what it is that’s doing the moving.”
Brunet continues, “Nothing in the world is going to change this reality. If Canadians want to move themselves or their goods into the U.S., they should expect that certain security measures be met. The question then becomes how to ensure that these measures actually make it easier for people who have nothing to hide to move themselves and their goods across the border, while keeping criminals and terrorists out. If we can accomplish this, then I don’t see the harm.”
Yet many vocal Canadians do see the potential for harm in any border deal between Canada and the United States. Unsurprisingly, one of those voices is the Council of Canadians, an organization known for its stand against greater integration with the United States. According to Stuart Trew, the organization’s trade campaigner, “I don’t think most Canadians realize how much private information on us the U.S. government could get its hand on, or how much of our decision-making as a sovereign country could be taken away.”
This is the crux of the issue. On the one hand, most Canadians liked a world where people and goods moved freely over the 49th parallel. On the other hand, we want to be our own country. Any solution amounts to some kind of balancing between cooperating with our neighbours to the south while preserving who and what we are as a nation. Most people debating the issue want to see this balance. The problem is determining what exactly this balance is.
Corinne Pohlmann is vice president of national affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), an organization that represents the interests of 108,000 small businesses in Canada. Her organization has approached the border negotiations from a different angle. Instead of focusing on security on the one hand, and sovereignty on the other, she believes the main issue for businesses is regulatory. She says, “Some of our members have chosen not to do business in the U.S. because it’s simply too burdensome to get their products to adhere to U.S. regulations.”
In fact, some kind of joint Canada-U.S. regulatory framework is one of the issues currently being negotiated between the two countries. Corrine says that it’s this specific issue that factored in on her organization’s endorsement of a border deal moving forward. She says, “We had one of our members, a wholesale distributor, simply throw his hands up in their air and practically abandon the U.S market. After years of doing business, the regulations became too burdensome. He gave up, and it’s not an isolated case.”
The CFIB is an umbrella organization that includes smaller businesses from various industries. But what about woodworking? How do some of these issues affect wood product makers and manufacturers? Well, according to Eric Wolf of architectural woodworking company Nikolai Manufacturing in New Westminster, B.C., not much. He says, “To be honest, it’s not much of a difference to us if we ship to a Canadian or American customer. The only difference is the paperwork. If it goes to the States, our staff maybe spends an extra hour doing our homework. That’s it.”
Wolf points to joint standards already in place for the architectural woodworking industry. He says, “Some of these issues have already been sorted out, at least in our business. The associations on both sides of the border have gotten together and issued documents telling us what the standards are. So, for a business like ours, it doesn’t really matter what side of the border a customer is on. Again, except for the paperwork, we do the exact same thing for each order each time. And we’ve never had a truck even opened and inspected at the border. I think it’s because we make sure we do our homework.”
Wolf’s experience may be isolated. It may not be. Anyone studying border issues for any amount of time begins to notice just how extraordinarily complex the issues can be. For example, one issue that has seemed to escape much public notice doesn’t even have anything to do with the proposed Canada-U.S. border deal. As immigration expert Brunet explains it, “As of April 1, 2011, changes to Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program come to effect. This is a real change affecting the movement of workers and people. It’s not hypothetical.”
Brunet believes that these changes made by Citizenship and Immigration Canada will have a greater impact on small businesses than anything to do with a border deal that is still at the negotiation stage, and might never get resolved. According to Brunet, “If you hire temporary foreign workers, you have to become aware of what the new reporting standards are. If businesses fail to meet the new standards, they could be in non-compliance, and it could have some serious financial consequences.”
Which begs the question: Has the importance of the proposed border deal between Canada and the United States been exaggerated? If at least some businesses are moving their goods without hindrance, and other related issues aren’t even on the table, is something else at play here? Stuart Trew of the Council of Canadians has some thoughts on the issue. He says, “It could well have something to do with an election. As far as we see it, any border-related problems can be handled without creating a so-called security perimeter.”
Trew’s suggestion is one that was at least somewhat echoed by most of the experts who discussed the topic with Wood Industry. In other words, targeting specific border problems might be something done in conjunction with a new border deal, or as an alternative to one. As Pohlmann of the CFIB puts it, “Even within the ongoing border negotiations, we would support some sort of mutual recognition of each country’s regulatory framework. We don’t think you have to wipe the slate clean to make things work.”
In fact, as already alluded to, architectural woodworkers have gone down this road of mutual cooperation without prime ministers or presidents signing joint declarations, or elections being fought over the issue. There is no doubt that problems for people and business exist at the border. What is less clear is if the problems are so serious as to warrant national debates about Canadian sovereignty, or have federal election campaigns about which party is better at protecting it. Sometimes Canadians and Americans just work these things out — without having to bother Messieurs Harper and Obama.