Canadians dismayed as US beefs up border security

This week's decision to deploy 600 US troops and helicopters raises concerns from bilateral trust to trade.


In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the US is fundamentally shifting its relationship with everyone - even Canada, its friendliest neighbor, its biggest trading partner, and its cultural kin.

The reality of this change hit home for Canadians this week, when the US announced it was sending some 600 military troops and helicopters to patrol the 49th parallel, the world's longest open border.

"It's what I call the 'Mexicanization' of the Canadian border," says Maude Barlow, chair of the watchdog group the Council on Canadians. "The feeling here ... is that the military presence is a kind of threat: 'You will change your visa and immigration and refugee policies ... or else we will not lift the militarization of the border.' "

The decision is meeting both astonishment and praise. While the business community is pleased by the increased security, questions are being raised - on both sides of the border - about the appropriateness of deploying armed troops. Concerns range from the possibility of injuring civilians to the slowing of border traffic, despite the stated intent of speeding it.

It is vital to both nations that the world's largest trade partnership continues unabated. Canada sends 85 percent of its exports to the US, which in turn sends 25 percent of its exports north. Some $1 billion in goods cross the border each day, and heightened security has caused long bottlenecks.

"What would happen if suddenly there were choke points at the border, and it became a real wall instead of a seamless border?" says Thomas d'Aquino, chairman and chief executive of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (formerly the Business Council on National Issues). "The damage would be staggering."

At a congressional hearing in Washington Wednesday, governors from border states North Dakota, Vermont, and Michigan said the military presence should not come at the expense of commerce.

US Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge travels to Ottawa Dec. 11 to discuss security issues. During a signing ceremony in the Canadian capital Monday, where the two nations agreed to coordinate customs and immigration requirements, US Attorney General John Ashcroft sought to reassure Canadians that the troops are not meant to militarize the border, but to protect trade and relieve tired personnel.

"These people are coming in to help with the stressed [customs and immigration] workers. They're not functioning as troops at all," he said, adding that the deployment amounts to just one extra person per 100 miles along the 5,500-mile border. Even then, there will only be 1,000 people staffing the Canadian border, compared with 9,000 guards along the Mexico border, which is about half the size.

But having any armed troops along the congenial US-Canada divide could spell trouble, some experts warn.

"You've got to think about the political sensitivities [of Canadians] - not only about the appearance of military helicopters patrolling the border, but the possibility that something goes wrong," says David Bercuson, director of the Center for Military and Strategic Studies in Calgary. Immigration and customs officials are trained to handle border traffic, but National Guard troops are trained for combat, Dr. Bercuson says. "I am in favor of as wide a cooperation as possible, but I don't have confidence that military forces ... are equipped to deal with border issues."

Some politicians also expressed dismay. "It's an extraordinary action," said opposition Tory leader Joe Clark, adding that the move shows the US has little confidence in Canada's ability to patrol its border.

But other Canadians welcome the tighter border. "As long as they are securing everything, I don't care," says Marilyn Carrie, a bank clerk. "It's a smart move, if you ask me."

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