WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama are seeking a sweeping deal to establish a North American security and trade perimeter, opening talks Friday that could lead to jointly operated Canada-U.S. border facilities, an integrated entry-exit system to track travellers and the deployment of "cross-designated" law enforcement officers to intercept terrorists and criminals.
Harper touted the plan as vital to both the safety and prosperity of Canadians, even as critics expressed concerns a future agreement with the U.S. could compromise the nation's sovereignty.
"This declaration is not about sovereignty. We are sovereign countries who have the capacity to act as we choose to act," Harper told reporters following an hour-long White House meeting with Obama.
"It is in Canada's interests to work with our partners in the United States to ensure that our borders are secure and ensure that we can trade and travel across them as safely and as openly as possible, within the context of our different laws. And that is what we're trying to achieve here."
The ambitious border declaration — the product of several months of behind-the-scenes preliminary work — foresees the most significant changes in the Canada-U.S. border relationship since the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Obama hailed the plan as a logical step for two countries who share the world's largest trading relationship and "are woven together like perhaps no other two countries in the world."
The U.S. president said he expected Harper to be "very protective" of Canadian values, just "as I would be very protective of the core values of the United States" throughout the upcoming negotiations.
"Obviously Canada and the United States are not going to match up perfectly on every measure with respect to how we balance security issues, privacy issues, openness issues, but we match up more than probably any country on Earth," Obama said.
The declaration issued by Harper and Obama said the two countries "intend to pursue a perimeter approach to security" by tracking potential threats before they reach North America while eliminating many of the hurdles that currently slow the flow of people and goods at the Canada-U.S. border itself.
The two leaders envision the creation of an "integrated Canada-United States entry-exit system" that would allow border agents in both countries to exchange information "so that documented entry into one country serves to verify exit from the other country."
The Canada and U.S. governments plan to put in place "common technical standards for the collection, transmission and matching of biometrics" to screen travellers in real time.
Officials will also begin negotiating the feasibility of "joint" border facilities "within and beyond" Canada and the United States, opening the possibility of shared customs facilities at overseas ports.
"We intend to work towards developing an integrated cargo security strategy that ensures compatible screening methods for goods and cargo before they depart foreign ports bound for Canada or the United States, so that once they enter the territory of either we can, together, accelerate subsequent crossings at land ports of entry," the declaration said.
Moreover, the Harper government and Obama administration plan far greater information sharing among each nation's respective law enforcement and intelligence agencies to identity potential terrorists and criminals in the U.S. and Canada — or before they arrive in either country from overseas.
Building on information-sharing among intelligence and law enforcement since the 9/11 terror attacks, Harper and Obama said they will work toward "the next generation" of integrated anti-terror and anti-crime operations with "cross-designated officers" to intercept potential threats.
Notably absent from the plans was a firm timetable for a final deal. The Canadian and American governments will establish a "Beyond the Border Working Group" that will report back to Obama and Harper "in the coming months." The leaders' declaration said the working groups will then report back on an annual basis, with their mandate to be reviewed after three years.
Harper said the border declaration "marks the start of this endeavour, not the end."
In Ottawa, opposition politicians expressed concerns that Harper government might be bartering away sovereignty in exchange for greater access to the U.S. marketplace.
"We're a country that has prided itself on welcoming immigrants and refugees from other countries. We have different standards, the Americans, on these questions," said Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. "We have a right to do so. And if we get into a security perimeter deal that weakens Canadian sovereignty, we may end up betraying Canadian values."
Paul Dewar, the NDP foreign affairs critic, said, "the question is what is the cost and what effects will it have on Canadian sovereignty."
Bloc Quebecois house leader Pierre Paquette said his party still has concerns that the security perimeter is being negotiated behind closed doors instead of being debated in Parliament in a transparent manner.
"We are in favour of a security perimeter," said Paquette. "We believe we need something like this to facilitate the mobility of people and goods, but we want it to be done through a transparent debate where there is a balance between security, trade and fundamental freedom."
In a statement of principles, Obama and Harper said they "recognize the sovereign right of each country to act independently in its own interest."
Officials intend to "formulate jointly Canada-United States privacy protection principles" to add safeguards for citizens of each country.
In exchange for the greater co-operation — and U.S. influence — over security issues, the two governments hope to speed trade by expanding trusted traveller programs, adopting common product standards and harmonizing customs rules for goods crossing at the border or at pre-clearance facilities away from the border.
"We're launching a new effort to get rid of outdated regulations that stifle trade and job creation," Obama said. "We need to obviously strike the right balance, protecting our public health and safety and making it easier and less expensive for American(s) and Canadians to trade and do business — for example, in the auto industry."
Canadian and U.S. officials are also seeking a joint approach to beefing up infrastructure at the top 10 publicly owned ports of entry.
Harper and Obama plan to establish "binational port of entry committees" to co-ordinate planning and funding of border infrastructure.
With files from Meagan Fitzpatrick, Mike De Souza and Amy Minsky
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