Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Opening the Canada-US border is a political, not an executive responsibility

The Canadian media is gearing us up for Prime Minister Harper’s meeting with President Obama on Friday. Expectations about an agreement to reopen the border are rising despite the absence of public involvement or political consultation in either country. It doesn’t ring true.
Colin Robertson, one of Canada’s go-to commentators of the subject, made this ambitious statement in The Globe and Mail:
“There will be agreement to further institutionalize joint operations on intelligence, law enforcement and migration, and the sharing and pooling of information, as we’ve done for half a century through NORAD. The ultimate goal should be to make the flow of people, goods and services between the world’s single biggest bilateral trading relationship as easy as that enjoyed within the European Union. With an eye to elections, negotiations will start with the intent of getting it done within the calendar year.”

To catch up with Europeans, however, Canadians would also have to accept a diminishment of Canadian sovereignty over who gets into Canada and the surveillance of individuals already in Canada. NORAD is a poor analogy. Sharing rights and responsibilities with American officials on the ground is hardly the same thing as giving US fighter planes access at 35,000 feet.
Compromising sovereignty isn’t something that can be appended to an executive agreement. What Canada would give up, in return for an open border, would have to be spelled out and publicly defended in both countries. Robertson touched lightly on this difficulty:
“Mr. Obama must convince Congress that Canadians can be trusted and that including us in the security blanket serves U.S. national security and economic interests.”

Trust in the competence of the Canadian government can’t be granted carte blanche by the US Congress any more than it can be granted carte blanche by Canada’s parliament. Domestic surveillance and the administration of immigration and refugee policies must be subject to political oversight and, ultimately, must answer to the people they are charged to defend.

A meaningful agreement would entail either political integration or a diminishment of democratic authority over security by Canadians. These are not “partnership” questions that can be finessed away from the electorate.

Harper and Obama could do something great but they’ll have to involve legislators and the public. And Harper will have to avoid an election this spring. A vague communiqué on a new partnership won’t fly with continentalists or Canadian nationalists.

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