After years of functioning in relative obscurity, the North American Free Trade Agreement is now making news, as the August start date for its renegotiation approaches.

Border management is a side of the NAFTA coin that perhaps does not get sufficient attention. The border is where many Canadian and American business travellers get close and personal with NAFTA. Fees are collected. Shipments are inspected for compliance. Those trying to work or do business stateside can be held up depending on whether they qualify for the appropriate NAFTA work visas.

The work of government agencies on both sides of the border of managing our shared boundary matters to the health of our integrated economies, the viability of our businesses, and even the quality of life of those living near the border, and is nearly as important as the implementation of any trade agreement.

Canada and the US have had various forms of border preclearance since the 1950s. Preclearance allows Canadians to be screened and given the green light by American officials for immigration, customs and agriculture purposes, before entering the US and while still on Canadian soil. In recent years, there’s been real progress in moving screening away from the actual border to prescreening clearance facilities at airports in Calgary, Toronto, Edmonton, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and Winnipeg.

In practical terms, preclearance means air travellers can breeze through any American airport as if they were domestic passengers, with no need to go through customs once they’ve landed in the US. That opens up flight routes to any town that has a commercial airport, rather than limiting the routes to major cities with built-in US customs facilities. Any Canadian who has landed at JFK or O’Hare and stood in a long line behind travellers from far-flung places appreciates the convenience and efficiency of preclearance.

At its core, preclearance serves two significant policy goals: it helps Canadian and US officials zero in on potentially bad actors and dangerous or illegal goods, while at the same time making it easier for upstanding citizens and legitimate commerce to cross the border with relative ease and minimal hassle.

Despite the 50 year history of preclearance measures at the border, everything changed after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The US and Canada beefed up security at the border, and the boundary became mired in congestion, delays and hassles for those who did cross-border business or travelled frequently between the two countries.

Canada began to complain, as inefficiencies at the border have a disproportionate impact on the Canadian economy. And, for more than a decade, a frustrated Canada pushed the US to co-operate on initiatives aimed at fixing what had become a woefully inefficient boundary.

The US balked, and then, in 2011 a border deal was announced between then-prime minister Stephen Harper and former US president Barack Obama. This was followed in 2015 with the signing of an updated and expanded preclearance agreement.

But there’s been an odd reversal of fortunes recently. The enabling legislation for this preclearance agreement easily passed both chambers of US Congress late last year. Now Americans are intently waiting for Canadians to enact its own preclearance law. Usually Canada’s parliamentary system is far more efficient than the process in DC. Not so on this issue.

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Canada’s Bill C-23 would implement the 2015 border pact. It was introduced in June 2016 and is still working its way through the parliamentary process; a Commons committee only recently gave the Bill the green light. The legislation, when passed, will expand the number of preclearance locations at airports and at various other land, rail and marine crossings, including Montreal’s central train station.

In order to comply with the new agreement, US Customs and Border Protection officials would need to clear legal authority to question and search those in preclearance areas seeking to enter the US, and Canadian border officials operating in preclearance areas in the US would get equivalent powers — as should be the case in a truly reciprocal initiative. Canada agreed it was a fair trade-off that would give Canadians and Canadian businesses easier access to the US, and at long last we had a deal to create an efficient border.

And yet, we’re still waiting for Canadian parliamentarians to bring the preclearance deal to life.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Canadian Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale in Minneapolis, for a CABC dialogue on security and prosperity in the run-up to the NAFTA renegotiation. During our talk, Minister Goodale spoke about the preclearance, calling it an issue with “both security and economic implications” that will be a “great advantage for travellers moving in both directions.” Minister Goodale praised the potential expansion of the program, especially the inclusion of cargo shipments, as a “very good advantage for Canada/US trade moving in both directions.”

Hopefully, when Parliament returns this fall there will be an effort to complete the process and get people moving, for the benefit of both Canada and the United States and the health of our deeply integrated economies. Without a more efficient border, NAFTA is a one-sided coin and thus only half as valuable.

This article is part of the Trade Policy for Uncertain Times special feature.

Photo: US Canada border crossing line, by oksana.perkins

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Maryscott (Scotty) Greenwood
Maryscott (Scotty) Greenwood is a Washington-based specialist in Canada/US relations and a partner at Crestview Strategy. She is CEO of the Canadian American Business Council. As a former political appointee in the Clinton administration, Greenwood served as chief of staff at the US Embassy in Ottawa.

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