WASHINGTON—Canadian officials plan a diplomatic blitz south of the border to allay security jitters following two attacks this week that have drawn extensive coverage from U.S. media.
Ambassador Gary Doer and other embassy staff will make it a priority over the coming days to reach out to American decision-makers to emphasize Canada’s commitment to border security, a government source said Thursday.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has already begun doing interviews with American media—and in one such appearance Thursday he pushed back when asked whether the Parliament Hill shooter had visited the U.S.
“A lot of Canadians visit the United States. I wouldn’t think there’s any link in that,” Baird replied in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “I think (radicalization has) become a major problem for all Western countries, and Canada is not immune to that.”
Amid the 24-hour coverage by American news networks of the separate attacks on Canadian soldiers in Ottawa and Quebec, the safety of the Canada-U.S. border has occasionally crept into some of the discussion.
And at a White House briefing Thursday, a spokesman for President Barack Obama was asked whether the U.S. might need to take new steps to ensure the security of the northern border.
In his answer, Obama spokesman Josh Earnest sidestepped that part of the question. He said only that the U.S. has an important counter-terrorism partnership with Canada, which includes making sure the border is properly monitored.
The White House spokesman was also asked whether he feared the attacks might weaken Canada’s resolve to fight Islamic State militants in Iraq, and replied in the negative: “Prime Minister Harper said it very well yesterday. He said that the Canadian people will not be intimidated.”
Segments on CBS, CNN and MSNBC all briefly touched on the border-safety theme.
It might have been little more than airtime-filling chatter, but the mere mention of border-tightening can cause alarm in Canada. Security measures after the 9-11 attacks are still blamed for traffic snarls that have reduced Canada’s GDP by between one and two per cent.
And in U.S. politics, sometimes, the preferred solution to a foreign crisis is to shut the door.
Just this week, a poll suggested 77 per cent of Americans favoured a travel ban on Ebola-affected countries—despite the repeated insistence of policy-makers that such a ban would not help, and could even make things worse. The overwhelming response in the political system to a refugee crisis involving children from Central America has been to block them in Mexico.
This week, the attention turned to Canada.
For the most part, the Canadian border was little more than a rhetorical football, which left-leaning commentators threw at conservative types who oppose amnesty for undocumented Mexican workers.
The debate over granting status to people who’ve snuck across the Mexican border is a burning issue in American domestic politics, far hotter than anything related Canada. Some mentions this week of the Canadian border appeared primarily designed to score points about Mexico:
• ”Our southern border with Mexico dominates the political conversation—especially on the right. There’s now a very real threat happening from the north,” MSNBC personality Chris Matthews told his audience Wednesday night, without elaborating further.
• ”Another jihadi terrorist attack in Canada. Therein lies the grave danger: Not from the Southern border but from the porous Northern border,” TV personality Geraldo Rivera tweeted.
• ”I’m much more concerned about the Canada border than I am the Mexico border. Because it’s much easier to come across that border. To stop somebody who has been radicalized in Canada from coming across that border requires that you know about them; that the Canadians know about them and tell us; and that they try to cross that border legally,” former CIA deputy director Mike Morell told CBS.
• CNN also started sniffing around the border question. The proximity of Ottawa to the U.S. border popped up during Wolf Blitzer’s show. The network’s Erin Burnett OutFront program then asked viewers in social media: Are you confident in the security of America’s northern with #Canada?
Even if it’s all idle discussion, one former ambassador to the U.S. says the Canadian government must stay on top of the issue.
Michael Kergin said he’d be contacting lawmakers from both U.S. parties, talking to congressional committees, and sending out a list of all the security measures adopted in Canada since 2001—such as integrated border-enforcement teams, intelligence-sharing, and joint maritime patrols.
He’s all too aware of what can happen when security concerns in the U.S. trump trade.
He was Canada’s envoy on Sept. 11, 2001, and recalls intense negotiations just to get the border opened again. He said he then spent years writing op-eds in newspapers and correcting statements he overheard at dinner parties after an erroneous news report that some of the 9-11 attackers came from Canada. He said he even carried around a statement, in his left jacket pocket, from then attorney-general John Ashcroft, denying the report.
Fortunately, he said, the storm this time will be milder. The psychological trauma, for Americans, of the attacks on New York and Washington was orders of magnitude greater than anything that happened this week, he said.
“There will inevitably be a certain degree of rumour-mongering or finger-pointing, or people saying, ‘Geez, the Canadians obviously aren’t as tough on this stuff as we are, and we would never let them into our Capitol building, so what are they doing, we’ve got 5,000 miles of border there, maybe it’s going to come to us next,”‘ Kergin said.
“But… I don’t think it’s going to cause a huge amount of problems.”
A major Canada-U.S. business group is equally confident that complaints about border security won’t get anywhere. Collaboration now between border agencies in both countries is now so tight that it exceeds, in some cases, the information-sharing between agencies within the U.S., said an advisor at the Canadian American Business Council.
“There will always be uninformed chatter,” Maryscott Greenwood said.
“But it will be handled by the facts.”