United States-Canada Border Policy: Beyond the Border or Beyond Cooperation?

The United States-Canada border represents the longest common border in the world, stretching over 8,890 km. In comparison with the United States’ southern border containing 18,600 border control personnel, that of the North holds a mere 2,200 personnel. The recent terrorist attack on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, however, has called into question this relatively unchecked border.

Image courtesy of Canadian Pacific, © 2013, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Canadian Pacific, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Within days of the attack, United States Secretary of State John Kerry publically met with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird in Ottawa to express his condolences. In the subsequent press conference, Kerry reaffirmed the ‘robust’ and ‘special’ relationship between the United States and Canada, but this statement came with a call for heightened security measures. Kerry indicated the need for ‘some tweaks, some changes, some additions’ to the pre-existing framework.[1]

The Beyond the Border Initiative has guided the border security relations between these North American partners since its launch in 2011. This strategy introduced a ‘perimeter approach to security, working together within, at, and away from the borders’ that separate the United States and Canada.[2] By ‘pushing the border out,’[3] both countries adopted common measures for screening both goods and passengers, as well as sharing relevant information and intelligence with the aim of stopping threatens before they reach any border crossing. Despite this collaborative effort, critics have claimed that integration has not taken place quickly enough.

A month has now passed since these attacks, and while the media has moved on, both Canadian and American security policies have continued to evolve. Prime Minister Stephen Harper almost immediately called for greater powers granted to law enforcement agencies in terms of surveillance, detention and preventive arrest, as well as greater autonomy within the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).[4] Many of these aims have since been addressed through the introduction of the Protection of Canada from Terrorists Act. Perhaps the greatest expansion of CSIS capabilities includes its role in conducting operations outside of Canada with the support of other intelligence agencies. This addition has been emphasized in light of the number of Canadian nationals intending to fight abroad in Syria.

Such a desire for heightened surveillance and preemptive action can similarly be identified in the United States. Immediately following the attack, public officials discussed revoking passports of potentially extremist travellers.[5] In a much more recent development, Senate Republicans blocked the U.S.A. Freedom Act; this surveillance reform bill would have taken Americans’ phone records out of the control of the National Security Agency. Opponents of the bill have framed mass data collection as a necessity in the fight against terrorism,[6] and the recent memory of Canada’s homegrown terrorist attacks has only contributed to this perception.

The clear support for mass surveillance in both the United States and Canada has converged in the recent announcement of increased drone deployment along their shared border by the end of next year.[7] Under the authority of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, these Predator B drones can take high-resolution videos of terrain surrounding the border.[8] They later compare these images to those of a different given day to identify any discrepancies in the landscape. Even the smallest details can be picked up. Although drone patrols have taken place since 2004, their steadily increasing use marks a major shift from the dominant ‘boots on the ground’ border policy.

These national security developments and ‘tweaks’ in border protection since the Ottawa attack raise the question of whether Kerry and Baird’s collaborative partnership has been compromised. In one sense, increased surveillance and intelligence gathering in the United States and Canada strengthen the perimeter security emphasized in the Beyond the Border Initiative. Both countries’ increased attention to potentially radicalized travellers can allow for greater awareness of returned fighters to either country. In effect, this potential intelligence sharing can mitigate future terrorist risks.

Others argue that the turn to an increased number of drones is a problematic development in their border policy. Although increased drone flights have been presented as an alternative to the high number of border patrol agents, the number of officers has yet to drop. In addition, the need for such advanced surveillance technology has not yet been demonstrated. As Foreign Minister Baird has expressed, there has not been a terrorist who has attacked the United States by entering through Canada, or the other way around. Rather than tracking terrorists, the use of drones has rather facilitated illegal drug seizures. Furthermore, this shift in strategy represents a new form of militarization along the border. Although there may be fewer border patrol officers on the ground in the future, the number of drones will only increase. This development can perhaps represent a virtual militarization of the border.

If the increasing use of drones is not a necessary surveillance measure along the northern border, then why prioritize militarization over greater cooperation with Canada? This preference is once again at odds with remarks by Kerry and Baird, who are vital to the foundation of the Beyond the Border Initiative. This precedent of increased drone employment despite minimal threats moreover questions the limit of this virtual militarization. Perhaps the threat of American drone surveillance to Canadian civil liberties will spark an internal call for greater accountability. Until then, it appears the northern border may be on an upward trajectory of drone operation. While the implications of this new border strategy have yet to fully materialize, the level of cooperation between these allies must remain a priority. In order to preserve the ‘robust’ relationship that both diplomats have held so highly, both countries must tackle these issues collectively before cross-border collaboration fades.

[1] http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2014/10/233468.htm

[2] http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/us-canada_btb_action_plan3.pdf

[3] http://actionplan.gc.ca/en/page/bbg-tpf/beyond-border-action-plan

[4] http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/ottawa-shooting-harper-government-wants-to-make-terror-arrests-easier-1.2811571

[5] http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/23/us-canada-attacks-usa-security-idUSKCN0IC2NJ20141023

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/19/us/nsa-phone-records.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=second-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_term=%2AMorning%20Brief&utm_campaign=2014_MorningBrief-%20SAIS%20PROMO111914&_r=1

[7] http://m.apnews.com/ap/db_268779/contentdetail.htm?contentguid=gi27584Y

[8] https://news.vice.com/article/more-drones-on-us-borders-create-privacy-concerns-for-its-neighbors

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