Voices of cultural doom wrong again

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The Gazette, Wednesday, February 9, 2011

If U.S. customs and immigration officials were allowed to work the Canadian side of the border, would that be cause for concern about our territorial and political sovereignty?

Of course it's already an example of enhanced cooperation at the border - it's called pre-clearance at airports so that flights from Canada can land at domestic rather than international gates in the U.S.

This is a convenience we all take for granted. No one thinks anything of it. But you can imagine the outcry from Canadian nationalists if such an arrangement were negotiated today. It would be denounced as a sellout of our political and territorial sovereignty. The opposition would demand an emergency debate in the House of Commons. The opposition leader would announce that "we may end up betraying Canadian values."

Come to think of it, that's exactly what happened last week, when the Canadian prime minister and the U.S. president announced their "shared vision" for a secure and smart border. Sovereignty alarm bells were ringing all over Canada.

But not at the White House, where Barack Obama helpfully said: "I have great confidence that Prime Minister Harper's going to be very protective of certain core values of Canada, just as I would be very protective of the core values of the United States. And those won't always match up perfectly."

What does match up is a political will at the top to get this done. And that's to Stephen Harper's credit -getting Obama's attention, and getting him to engage. And that means the system will engage.

At the end of their unusually long five-page joint communique on the border, Harper and Obama noted that "responsibility for ensuring inter-agency co-operation will rest with the prime minister and the president and their respective officials."

According to U.S. ambassador David Jacobson, the file will be managed in Ottawa by the Privy Council Office and in Washington by the National Security Council. Which puts it right in the Langevin Block and the White House, in trusted hands.

The task force will be known as the Beyond the Border Working Group, not to be confused with the Regulatory Co-operation Council, to establish common standards in regulated industries such as pharmaceuticals.

All of this while recognizing "the sovereign right of each country to act independently in its own interest and in accordance with its laws."

It's also significant that Harper obtained this agreement within the bilateral Canada-U. S. relationship rather than the larger NAFTA framework. And the reason is obvious -the Mexican border presents the U.S. an entirely different set of issues, many of them on illegal immigrants.

In incremental terms, the two agreements simply take the Canada-U. S. Security and Prosperity Partnership to a higher level. But the involvement of the prime minister and president means everyone at the centre is involved. And there hasn't been that kind of political engagement since the free trade talks of 1986-87.

We heard the same voices of doom then. Remember?

We were going to lose our cultural sovereignty. Instead, the Canadian cultural industries have boomed.

Our public health care would be destroyed. Instead, while there are serious issues of waiting times and capacity, no one questions government as the single insurer of public health care.

Oh, and the border between Canada and the United States would be erased.

The voters ratified the Free Trade Agreement in the 1988 election, and as a result, our trade with the U.S. more than tripled in the next decade. Between 1993 and 2000, exports created four new Canadian jobs in five, and 80 per cent of our exports went to the United States.

The self-appointed guardians of Canadian sovereignty couldn't be more out of step with public opinion. A Nanos poll of both Canada and the U.S. last August found that 65 per cent of Canadians and 73 per cent of Americans favoured "closer cooperation on border security." Moreover, 64 per cent of Canadians and 79 per cent of Americans supported "closer cooperation on antiterrorism measures." At the same time, 61 per cent of Canadians and 55 per cent of Americans felt each country should follow its own national interest.

In other words, border security and sovereignty are not incompatible in the minds of citizens of both countries.

Think of pre-clearance on your flight to New York and Miami. That's where Canadians are on this.

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