It's been interesting listening to the bellicose rhetoric lately on the topic of Canada as a haven for terrorists. Ever since US officials arrested four people allegedly connected to ber-terrorist Osama bin Ladin, at a remote US-Canada border crossing, prominent American politicians have hinted at trouble ahead for Canada if it doesn't change its "easy" immigration policies.
Well, it's time for a bit of a reality check. It's not that I find the subject of terrorists sneaking into the US a joke. As dual citizen of America and Candada, and as someone who crosses the border a couple dozen times a year because of my work, this issue means a great deal to me.
In some cases, the criticism of Canada is justified. Canada must improve enforcement of the laws it already has to arrest and deport immigrants and refugees it suspects of being terrorists.
For example, Ahmed Ressam, arrested trying to enter Washington State with a carload of explosives in mid-December, was for years under a Candadian deportation order that had never been carried out for lack of resources.
If the Canadian government wants to be a good neighbor, it needs to recognize that security is important to the US for all-too-obvious reasons. On the other hand, the notion that it's "easy" to get into Canada, and that this is a "bad" thing, are likely to remain unchanged. Americans - the media and politicians especially - need to understand that the majority of Canadians consider Canada's more open immigration laws a good thing, for very important reasons.
While popular cultural mythology likes to paint the US as the "land of immigrants," the truth is that the term fits Canada much more accurately, especially as we move into the first decade of the 21st century. For much of the previous century, Canada's immigration policy was xenophobic and often racist. It largely favored white Western Europeans, especially those of British origin.
Then in 1967, Canada's immigration policies (and refugee policies) changed dramatically, and people from around the world suddenly saw Canada as a place to start a new life. As a result, Canada's immigration rate is the highest in the industrialized world. According to Statistics Canada, 20 percent of the current population is "foreign born." That is compared with only 8 percent of the US population, according to US immigration figures. Many believe the influx of immigrants and refugees has saved the Canadian economy.
"Since 1967 ... a tidal wave of new immigrants from every part of the world has transformed the face of our cities and rescued our economy ...," writes historian and journalist Gwynne Dyer in the February issue of the Canadian magazine EnRoute. "This wave of new Canadians will be the economic salvation of the country in the new century, as the birth rate among 'older Canadians' has fallen so low that otherwise we would be facing a steep decline in the working-age population."
So economics alone would justify the continuation of a broad immigration policy. But it's more than that. While not all Canadians support the government's current immigration policy, surveys conducted by various organizations over the past decade show continued support from a large majority of Canadians. Why?
There's no easier way to say it - Canadians believe it's the right thing to do.
Most Canadians do not believe that their immigration policies are "easy" - they do believe that they are far more humane than those of the US. As a Canadian immigration official once said to me, a Canadian looks at an immigrant or refugee and tends to ask, "Do they need help?" While an American looks at the same person and wonders "Is this a terrorist?"
Combine this with the fact that Canadian foreign policy frequently differs from US policy, and it is entirely possible that Canadians and Americans often do look at the same people and arrive at different conclusions about their motives. And Americans need to know that Canadians will not change this position just because American politicians are yelling at them. In fact, knowing Canadians, nothing will make them stiffen their spines more.
What is needed to solve this problem is not a draconian clampdown on the movements of Canadians and Americans across the world's longest unprotected border, as is advocated by Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas. It would be a logistical nightmare, creating traffic backlogs that would anger citizens on both sides of the border and greatly impede commerce.
What's needed - and what will likely happen once the US election-season silliness ends - is that US and Canadian law-enforcement officials will work more closely together to make sure legitimate threats to international (not just US) security are treated in the appropriate manner. This can be done while still respecting the laws of both countries.
It's the kind of solution that two longtime friends would arrive at, once all the rhetoric and name-calling is ended.
*Tom Regan is the associate editor of The Christian Science Monitor's Web site, csmonitor.com. His series on cyberterrorism appeared in the Monitor last June and July.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society