Canadian and U.S. officials hope to announce new border security measures at the G-8 Summit in Kananaskis, Deputy Prime Minister John Manley said Saturday.
He hinted that one of the announcements could involve a pilot project giving pre-clearance to trucks used by the auto industry, allowing them to cross the border without stopping for customs or security checks.
Emerging from a private meeting with Tom Ridge, head of U.S. homeland security, Manley acknowledged that progress has been slow since September when he and Ridge signed a broad 31-point declaration of principles for creating a "smart border."
For one thing, Manley admitted, talks to develop a so-called safe third-country agreement to prevent asylum shopping by refugee claimants in the two countries have "stalled."
Moreover, he said, he told Ridge that Canada is concerned border crossings could be clogged if the Americans proceed with plans to closely track all those who enter the U.S.
Nevertheless, Manley said he is optimistic the slow "step-by-step" process, combined with Ridge's influence with U.S. President George W. Bush, will eventually yield major improvements for the 200 million drivers who cross the border each year.
And noting that Canada has been pushing for years to eliminate border hassles for low-risk individuals, Manley argued that great strides have already been made in getting the Americans to seriously discuss the issue.
"We've got a process that's being driven by Gov. Ridge and myself interagency. We've got clear milestones that we're trying to work towards . . . these are major steps forward, compared to where we were back in September."
The first milestone is the G-8 summit in Alberta next June. Manley said he and Ridge are working towards having some "substantive announceables" ready in time for Bush's visit to Canada for the meeting of the leaders of the major industrial nations.
The head of the U.S. Customs Service last week complained that Canada is more interested in enhancing cross-border trade than beefing up security and expressed concern terrorists and weapons of mass destruction could be hidden in pre-cleared trucks. But Manley dismissed that as natural bureaucratic resistance to new ideas and said Ridge does not share those concerns.
Still, in order to ease such fears, Manley said the two countries must proceed slowly with initiatives to speed up border crossings for low-risk drivers, freeing up resources to focus on more high-risk traffic.
"I think we need to walk before we run."
He suggested that allowing customs pre-clearance for trucks in the auto sector could be a good starting point.
"We may want to start a project as a pilot in an important sector and that would be one way of beginning to build confidence that this can work . . . if we take an important sector like the auto sector, if we can establish criteria for the security of the people who are working on loading docks and the security of the trucks that are moving, we advance everybody's cause.
"We advance the security cause and those trucks will then cross the border freely without being part of the backlog sitting on the Ambassador Bridge."
Manley said traffic across the border is now "more or less back to normal," after being shut down in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But he warned Ridge that plans to monitor all entrants to the U.S. could create new backlogs.
He said Ridge assured him the plan is aimed at tracking the movements of those who enter the U.S. on valid visas and on ensuring they don't stay on illegally after their permits expire.
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