PM in Washington: Canada, U.S. gearing toward big changes for the border

By , on March 8, 2016

File photo: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Photo from the PM's website).
File photo: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Photo from the PM’s website).

WASHINGTON – Sources say Canada and the United States are on the verge of announcing a plan that would revolutionize the way travellers cross the border into both countries, affecting multiple modes of transportation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will announce during his trip to Washington that he intends to move forward with a pre-clearance system that would allow people to clear customs at train stations, bus stations and off highways the same way they already can at several Canadian airports.

Two industry sources and one national government confirmed that the issue will develop during the prime minister’s visit that begins Wednesday, after a year of uncertainty swirling around it.

A U.S. official speaking to a public event would not go as far as confirming specifics but hinted at an elaborate agreement that would include a pre-clearance component.

“They will be announcing a number of developments,” Alan Bersin, assistant secretary for international affairs at the U.S. Department of Homeland, told a forum hosted by the website Politico and the Canadian American Business Council.

“There’s really been a radical transformation in the way Canadians and Americans view the border.”

Asked what announcements could be forthcoming this week he referred to three areas, including long-expected plans to share data for land travellers the way it’s shared for air travel: “Entry-exit. Pre-clearance. Enhanced information-sharing.”

He said governments are starting to move beyond the old dichotomy of trade versus security at the border – and are designing a more sophisticated system intended to achieve both.

The basic idea is that travellers should be screened by customs officers away from the border, to ease pressure on those choke points and speed up travel.

The concept was announced a year ago by the Harper government and the Obama administration – but it hadn’t moved forward. To be implemented it requires legislation in both countries and neither country had yet indicated any intention of doing so, with Canada also having a change in government that prompted a period of uncertainty looming over the plan.

The legislation would deal with thorny legal issues such as the rights and responsibilities of customs officers operating on foreign soil; the governments insisted last year that an officer from the host country would need to be on-site to make an arrest.

The new system would start with pilot projects in several places, said one business source – including the port of Quebec City and the highway at Massena, N.Y., where Canadians and Americans would clear customs in the other country.

One business group that has spent years pushing for pre-clearance called it marvelous news if it’s true that Trudeau plans to move ahead.

“It’s brilliant. Much needed,” said Scotty Greenwood of the Canadian American Business Council.

“It has the potential to put millions of dollars back into the economy of North America.”

But one U.S. official who’s seen the issue gain momentum before only to have it slow down warned: “It’s not final until it’s final.”

The hurdles include passing a similar bill in the U.S. Congress – which often kills or blocks legislation.

However, a bill introduced a few days ago received numerous sponsors from both parties, increasing its chance of passing.