OTTAWA — Canada and the United States are scrambling to quell fears that Canadians would soon need visas to cross the border, following a hard-hitting report to Congress that questioned security along the 49th parallel.
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said Wednesday he had been assured by the U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Jacobson, there is no plan to require visas.
“Ambassador Jacobson phoned me up to let me know that that certainly is not the intention of the Obama administration,” Cannon told a news conference.
Indeed, Jacobson took to Twitter shortly after the report’s release Tuesday to declare that co-operation between the U.S. and Canada on security and border management had been “exceptional for years.”
He also stressed the Obama administration was “not contemplating” visa requirements for Canadians.
U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, chair of the chamber’s homeland security committee, had touted the possibility of visas for Canadian visitors after the report warned only a small portion of the lengthy border with Canada is properly secure.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office study said U.S. border patrol officials control just 50 kilometres of the 6,400-kilometre boundary.
It is expected that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will discuss continental security issues with U.S. President Obama during a visit to Washington on Friday.
But it’s believed the leaders will look for ways to reduce bottlenecks at the border, not add new layers of security.
There has been much chatter about finding ways to secure the perimeter of North America, allowing for easier flow of goods and people between Canada and the United States.
A “draft declaration” has leaked out, but one insider characterized the document as a mere jumping-off point for discussions.
Canadian critics say such a perimeter deal — almost certainly involving greater flow of personal information between the countries — would threaten sovereignty and privacy.
Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said the public is entitled to know which aspects of security the two leaders will be talking about.
“You cannot enter into a discussion with the president of the United States on an issue as critical as this without first discussing it with Canada.”
NDP Leader Jack Layton accused Harper of entering negotiations without involving Parliament.
“There’s not a lot of respect for Parliament on his part when it comes to dealing with trade issues, as we’ve seen. And we think that there should be a thorough discussion here about the extent to which he may be compromising our sovereignty,” he said.
“We of course want to work with our friends in the U.S. on issues. But we don’t want to compromise our ability to set our own policies.”
Failure to address security issues with the United States will imperil Canada’s economic recovery, said Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.
“If we are going to enjoy the economic relationship we have now with the Americans, security is an issue that we must address,” Toews said Wednesday.
“If we do not address these security issues, our economic recovery is in danger.”
Toews said that as the nature of threats evolve, “we also have to look at whether or not the agreements we have in place already with the Americans should be changed.”
But he cautioned: “Let’s not jump ahead of ourselves, we don’t even know what the discussion is about.”
Diane Ablonczy, minister of state for foreign affairs, told the House of Commons the government wants to keep the lines of trade and security open.