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Liberals Send Mixed Message on Cross-Border Trade and Travel: Senator Housakos
Liberals Send Mixed Message on Cross-Border Trade and Travel: Senator Housakos
November 29, 2017
OPINION
Image of Leo Housakos
Leo Housakos, Quebec

As asylum seekers continue to flow north from the United States, many Canadians are rightly concerned about the seeming inability of the federal government to manage these illegal immigration flows in an ethical but effective manner. Ensuring the protection of our southern border will require a balanced and holistic approach — indeed, Canadians must always remember the shared interest, on both sides of the border, in facilitating the smooth flow of legitimate trade and travel.

The benefits of free and legal transit across the border are overwhelming and as the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement continues in an ever-more globalized world, that fact must never be forgotten.

The consideration of these issues could not be more timely, with the Senate now debating Bill C-23, the Preclearance Act. This bill seeks to implement an agreement signed two and half years ago between then prime minister Stephen Harper’s government and the Obama administration.

Specifically, it seeks to improve cross-border trade and travel by setting up new preclearance facilities, reducing wait times and eliminating redundant screening, wherever possible. This kind of preclearance has been used in air travel for 60 years now — it’s about time we apply it to our land border. Going through U.S. customs on this side of the border has proven to be greatly efficient.

Every day, roughly 400,000 people cross the U.S.-Canada border by land, in addition to $2 billion worth of goods and services. These activities are essential to jobs, growth and prosperity on both sides of the border — and also contribute indirectly to our economic wellbeing in ways most citizens and consumers don’t see.

Preclearance wouldn’t just apply to cars either — we’re talking about all surface transport. It would make taking the train across the border far more efficient, boosting a key mode of transportation for the 21st century. And from leisure cruises to shipping containers, preclearance applied to vessels of all types would be a major boon to Canada’s Great Lakes and St. Lawrence region.

Unfortunately, despite the importance of "thinning the border", the depth of the current government’s commitment to doing so is unclear.

While the Liberals have the majority of members in the House and the majority of senators are Liberal appointees, this Liberal government regularly claims that its legislation is being delayed by the opposition in the House and in the Senate. In fact, as the slow progress of Bill C-23 illustrates, it is the government itself that too often sits on its own legislation, even on those bills which the official opposition supports. It is time for the Trudeau government to be held accountable for their own complacency and legislative incompetence.

It has taken the government nearly two years to move this important legislation through the House of Commons. Apparently, this was becoming a source of embarrassment for our ambassador in Washington, David MacNaughton, who needed to remind the current government of the importance of this agreement to Canada.

Senators will be more expeditious. However, it is also incumbent upon us as legislators to ensure that the Red Chamber hears from those who have some concerns with the legislation. As the bill’s critic, I intend to ensure that those who do have issues to raise receive a full and fair hearing. Indeed, I believe that this function is a key duty of Canada’s upper chamber.

In this regard, it is important to understand that this bill would further empower US Customs and Border Protection officers operating within Canada. While always subject to Canadian law, these expanded authorities require full analysis and scrutiny.

As a Senate committee undertakes this work, we also need to recognize that Canadian and American security establishments and law enforcement agencies are already quite integrated and do a good job protecting North America together. We will need to ensure that this excellent working relationship continues to be based on a combination of mutual interest, trust and respect for each other’s citizens.

Indeed, the way these provisions are implemented is just as important as the provisions themselves. This bill definitely stands on firm ground, but in order to do our jobs as legislators, senators will need to review the provisions in a serious manner in committee.

Looking across the globe, Canadians are often keenly aware of how fortunate this country is in its border relations. But with idleness comes rust. To keep the machine of prosperity pumping on both sides of the border, due diligence is always required. That is the role of the Senate as it exercises its constitutional responsibilities to provide sober second thought.

Leo Housakos is a senator representing the division of Wellington in Quebec. He previously served as Senate Speaker, is chair of the Senate Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament and a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

This article appeared in the October 19, 2017 edition of The Montreal Gazette.