FORTRESS NORTH AMERICA
HOW OUR WORLD WILL CHANGE
In the countdown to war, it went almost unnoticed. Answering an unrelated question in the House of Commons early last week, Jean Chrétien revealed that he'd established the Ad Hoc Committee on Public Security and Counterterrorism, headed by Foreign Minister John Manley, to lead the government’s anti-terrorism campaign. The Prime Minister dropped the news about the new cabinet committee so matter-of-factly that no one on the opposition benches seemed to realize his business-as-usual response to the fallout from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States was over. With one organizational shift, Chrétien had created a Canadian counterpart to Washington’s newly established Office of Homeland Security and signalled a new era of co-operation with Canada’s southern neighbour— one that could lead to a weakening of the country’s cherished sovereignty.
Canada’s role in the military conflict that began over the weekend is likely to be
small. On the home front, though, our contribution to the war against terrorism will be more substantial. Just how much Ottawa and Washington intend to march in lockstep in an effort to thwart further attacks is unclear. But Manley said in an interview with Macleans last week that everything is on the table, from increased surveillance on the Canada-U.S. border and sterner immigration and refugee policies, to the ultimate form of co-operation with the United States: the establishment of a security perimeter that would create a Fortress North America—although he later called such a notion “simplistic.” Even before the announcement of his appointment, Canadas new security czar had talked over mutual approaches with his U.S. counterpart, former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge. The two plan a more substantive meeting soon. “It’s going to be a step-by-step process,” Manley said, “it’s going to be conducted in close consultation with the United States and there’s got to be a good sharing of information.”
Canadians do seem ready for almost any level of co-operation between the two governments. An Ipsos-Reid poll released last week found that 70 per cent supported joindy manned border posts, and 85 per cent endorsed “making the types of changes that are required to create a joint North American security perimeter.” Also, 81 per cent said the two countries should adopt “common entry controls” in treating refugees and immigrants. “What this is all about is people searching for certainty relative to their security,” said Darrell Bricker, the polling firm’s president of public affairs. Whether the sentiment lasts after the chilling memories of Sept. 11 fade, he added, depends on how security measures being dreamed up in Washington and Ottawa affect people’s lives.
There was certainly no shortage of jitters last week, in a world still reeling from the strikes against the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington—and waiting nervously for the inevitable campaign against Afghanistan’s Taliban regime to begin. A Florida man died from pulmonary anthrax. Bioterrorism? According to officials, it was probably a rare and isolated case. A Russian airliner carrying 78 people en route from Israel to Siberia crashed into the Black Sea. Another deadly attack by Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network? U.S. and Russian authorities said the crash was the result of an errant missile from military exercises in Ukraine, an explanation denied by Ukrainian spokesmen. A knife-wielding passenger slashed the neck of a Greyhound bus driver, causing a deadly crash in Tennessee that killed six people, the assailant among them. Was he an Al-Qaeda member? Greyhound shut down for five hours as a precaution, pulling up to 1,900 buses off U.S. roads; the attacker, as it turned out, was an apparendy deranged, illegal immigrant from Croatia.
Each such incident created ripples of fear. Now, with the climate of uncertainty further exacerbated by war, how far is Canada prepared to go? Even before more discussions with the United States, it is clear o_ tough new domestic security measures are I on the way. Finance Minister Paul Martin, I sounding unusually hawkish, said last week that cabinet had implemented—as an interim measure until legislation is passed—a key component of the Sept. 28 United Nations Security Council resolution dealing with the funding of terrorism. From now on, he said, the government is requiring banks and other financial services companies to review their records, freeze the assets of groups or individuals who are on the government’s list of suspects, and report any suspicious transactions. The government can impose penalties of up to five years in jail for persons convicted of raising funds or having business dealings with the listed suspects. “We will destroy their capacity to wield military might against innocent people,” Martin said of terrorist organizations. “We are going to rip from their grasp the capacity to finance that violence.”
Justice Minister Anne McLellan, meanwhile, is expected to table a bill on Oct. 15 that for the first time makes it illegal to raise funds on behalf of terrorists, allows the government to seize—rather than just freeze—assets of terrorist organizations, and expands police wiretapping powers. As well, Immigration Minister Elinor Caplan asked the Senate to speed up passage of Bill C-l 1, which she insists will streamline the processing of the 35,000 refugee claimants who show up in Canada every year, limit access to appeals, and make it easier to deport undesirables.
On the front lines, authorities have already beefed up security at airports, border crossings and other sensitive locations. Sometimes dubiously—last week, Elmer Blanchard, 81, a frail Second World War veteran, was charged with uttering bomb threats. His crime, according to family members: asking security staff searching his wife’s change purse at Charlottetown airport whether they were looking for a bomb (local police declined to comment). Air Canada also called for the country to follow the lead of the United States and Germany and place armed sky marshals on flights (in Germany’s case, they are armed with electric dart guns). The airline added it will reinforce cockpit doors within 30 days of getting Transport Canada approval. Other developments, too, showed a state of heightened alert. The Vancouver police deployed as many as 100 men in a special investigative unit to trace radical elements in the city’s minority communities—fearful that, in the event of war, Canada could be targeted from within.
Too little and too ineffective, critics say. Even if all the measures were adopted and police become more vigilant, they won’t come close to stopping terrorists determined to enter Canada, raise funds for future operations and then strike, either here or in the United States. “Our border is Swiss cheese and the policies we have in place smell,” says Lubomyr Luciuk, professor of political geography at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., and an Immigration and Refugee Board member from 1996 to 1998. Canada’s problems range from identifying terrorists and then locating them, to holding and deporting them. The infamous case of Ahmed Ressam—the would-be millennium bomber caught trying to smuggle a trunkful of explosives into Washington state from British Columbia—illustrates a number of these problems.
Ressam came to Canada in 1994 using forged documents and immediately filed for refugee status. He was turned down, but managed to stay in the country because of Ottawa’s policy of seldom returning asylum seekers who could face death at home. And while few rejected refugee claimants are terrorists, disappearances from the system while awaiting hearings or deportation are common.
That means that catching the next Ressam will take more than new laws. What’s necessary is a commitment of money and police manpower, Michael Greene of the Canadian Bar Association’s immigration section told a Senate committee last week.
The government says it’s prepared to spend what it takes. One preliminary estimate calls for between $3 billion and $5 billion in additional funds for the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and the immigration and customs system. Possibly sensing the new opportunities, University of British Columbia students lined up at a campus job fair last week for a chance to become spies for Canada. “We are looking for people who are concerned about the threat to the security of Canada, with a heavy focus on terrorism and how foreign governments are operating here,” CSIS agent Ron Perkio told the students.
But is the government prepared to take a further step—establishing a common security perimeter to protect both Canada and the United States from terrorist infiltration? To some degree, the logic is compelling, at least from Washington’s perspective. It would take “hundreds of millions of dollars” to make a modest improvement in security along the currendy undefended, 8,900-km-long Canada-U.S. border, says Paul Cellucci, the U.S. ambassador to Canada. And even then, the damage to the North American economy would be too great, he adds. With more than $1.2 billion
in trade—and 37,000 trucks—spilling across the border daily, neither country could easily withstand the economic hit from the strangled flow of traffic. On top of that, there’s the inconveg nience to the millions of £ Canadian and U.S. citizens who regularly cross the border to work, vacation or shop. While it’s unlikely the U.S. will fortify the border, the Senate voted $38 million to triple the number of Immigration and Naturalization Service agents from 300 to 900 in all the states that border on Canada, including Alaska.
But in Ottawa, the words “security perimeter” are rarely heard. One reason is optics. The Prime Minister has taken great pains not to appear too cozy with the Americans. But Canada also stands to lose some of its sovereignty. For the proposal to make sense, both countries would—at the very least—need to harmonize laws and procedures by which they allow visitors, immigrants and refugees to enter. For instance, Congress will almost certainly pass an anti-terrorism bill within the month, giving the justice department new powers to detain aliens suspected of terrorism for at least a week without a hearing or a charge. Nothing in Ottawa’s new immigration bill would permit Canada the same power. But if Ottawa did enact similar measures, Maude Barlow, chairwoman of the Council of Canadians, worries that the blurring of distinctions means the world would come to view Canada as having merged with the U.S. “It would be the worst of all worlds,” she says. “We would have no influence over American foreign and economic policy, but we would have to accept fallout from whatever policies they have.”
Of course, there are different kinds of perimeters. Complete harmonization would be a so-called hard-shell approach. But Cellucci says there needn’t be identical laws and policies for the idea to work. A soft-shell perimeter could be equally viable. Canada, the ambassador says, could maintain its separate foreign policy, even continue relations with countries the United States shuns, like Cuba and Libya. “We don’t have to do things exactly the same,” he explained. “But the goal has to be the same—to keep terrorists out and get rid of those who might already be here.”
Despite Ottawa’s attempts to publicly play down the perimeter proposal, momentum is building for its adoption, in fact if not in name. Several Canadian premiers, including Ontario’s Mike Harris, back the concept. If pressure from Washington mounts, Canada, which is more dependent on liberalized trade with the United States, may not be able to resist. “The U.S. is going to tighten up its border on a permanent basis and the question is, on what side of the tightening does Canada want to fall?” says Peter Morid, an expert on Canada-U.S. relations at the University of Maryland.
Even with a perimeter in place, security along the Canada-U.S. border is slated for a major overhaul. But contrary to public perception, crossing won’t necessarily become slower for everyone. Proposals that have been around for years, like preclearance of transport trucks carrying goods from one country to the other, and the issuing of smart cards for frequent crossers, could be adopted. Cellucci says that would allow border agents more time to scrutinize higher-risk travellers.
Most of the measures currently under discussion are aimed at foreign nationals. But the spotlight could just as easily be trained inward—with repercussions for personal privacy and civil liberties. Some security experts have trumpeted the idea of photo-identity cards for every Canadian citizen—like the ones the government plans to issue immigrants. Closed-circuit cameras inside airplane cabins and other public locations have also been discussed. It sounds like a nightmare, but then again Canadians have no experience of what it would be like to live under the constant fear of the next terrorist attack.
Other countries do, and have learned to accept intrusions on their privacy. In Israel, all citizens and permanent residents are required to carry an ID card and produce it on request to a policeman. The card indicates whether the bearer’s ethnic affiliation is Jewish, Arab or another nationality. The simple act of going to stores, concerts, sporting events and movies routinely involves security guards inspecting bags and using hand scanners to check for metal weapons or explosives. At multistorey car parks, private security guards sometimes record the names of drivers and licence plates, and demand that motorists open their trunks for inspection.
At present, the Canadian government is unlikely to take its cues from Big Brother. Manley says Canadians need not worry about losing civil rights. “If in our enthusiasm for waging a campaign against terrorism,” he said, “we undermine our principles of an open society founded on democracy, then the terrorists will have won.” But despite the minister’s assurances, it’s clear that in the brave new world of fighting a shadowy enemy, some of Canada’s most cherished ideals may come under threat.
Are you willing to compromise your privacy rights in return for the promise of increased national security?