Erasing the frontier
The remote frontier at Little Gold Creek represents greater cross-border efficiency — and perhaps one small step toward continental integration: Transparency: Locals practising what politicians are starting to preach
By Charlie Gillis, Joseph Brean and Heather Sokoloff 

High atop a mountain ridge in the Yukon — far from the political and diplomatic wrangling over Canada-U.S. border policy — Collette Farry is taking the first, small steps toward continental integration.

As a Canada Customs inspector in Little Gold Creek, Ms. Farry walked into a newly constructed border station last week to work side-by-side with her counterparts in the U.S. border patrol. It is an unprecedented amalgamation of resources and information. Working within arms reach of each other, the two teams will monitor the 40,000-odd cars and trucks that run the legendary Top of the World Highway, an alternately dusty or frost-ravaged ribbon which winds through moss-covered mountains between Dawson City and the town of Eagle in northeast Alaska.

“It’s totally open concept,” says Ms. Farry. “It’s great because there’s a lot of stuff, like documents for fish and wildlife, I can just walk right across the office, you know, and say, ‘Hey, can you stamp this?’ … If we’re warned about anything, then they hear it as well.

“It makes it so much easier.”

Indeed, American border guards and Canadian customs inspectors will split everything from the heating bills to use of the radio telephone. Even the decor is a study in bilateral co-operation: Updates from both RCMP and Alaska state troopers clutter the walls around the staff. The border, marked outside by brass markers on mountaintops and a cutline through the trees, runs smack through the office.

The experiment at Little Gold Creek, a cluster of squat buildings straddling the Yukon-Alaska line, is the long-awaited result of Our Shared Border, a 1995 accord between the two countries intended to foster greater co-operation and efficiency at crossings and ports of entry.

Similar projects have been planned for land crossings in B.C., Alberta and Manitoba, often with stunning attention to detail. Among other things, designers have located the washrooms on the U.S. sides of the buildings so American border guards can keep their sidearms when they use the toilets (Canada Customs inspectors do not carry weapons and require Americans to check theirs at the border).

Whatever the arrangements, these shared facilities offer a snapshot of the countless innovations and examples of cross-border co-operation that are steadily re-inventing — some say erasing — the Canada-U.S. boundary as it has existed for years.

While North America remains light years behind Europe in phasing out border infrastructure, the explosion in north-south traffic since the ratification of the NAFTA has brought Canadians and Americans together as never before. Part of this phenomenon, as illustrated by the amalgamation at Little Gold Creek, has been borne of bureaucratic foresight.

But much of it stems from the initiative of local residents, entrepreneurs and governments who are embracing change far more quickly than the mandarins and political leaders. If elected officials in Ottawa and Washington are finally preaching the gospel of continentalism, these people say, it is because their constituents have been practising it for years.

Nowhere are they practising it more devoutly than in B.C.’s south Okanagan and northeast Washington, where hundreds of thousands of tourists flock each year to pick fruit, sample local wine or swim in the valley’s scenic lakes. For decades, towns on both sides of the border jockeyed for tourism dollars, says Tom Shields, the Mayor of Osoyoos, until they realized they had more to gain by promoting each other.

This year, business people and local politicians from both sides of the border joined forces to advertise a “Two Nations Vacation” along Highway 97, the road linking both sides of the border, and have managed to pry money from both the Washington and British Columbia governments to do so.

An eight-person committee including members from Osoyoos and Oroville, Wash., formed to steer the initiative. Since hooking up, the two sides have shared the cost of printed pamphlets and a Web Site advertising each other’s community events.

“It’s a great thing,” enthuses Mr. Shields. “There’s a couple of politicians, a couple on economic development people and a couple business people from each side. But they’re all sitting at the meetings and they’re getting support from both governments.”

At the very least, their success shows that the advantages of north-south co-operation are registering with decision-makers at higher and higher levels. While diplomats and cabinet ministers continue to study the prospect of continental integration, many individual Canadians MPs have begun working with their American counterparts to integrate tracts of the Canadian and U.S. economies as much as possible under existing laws.

Claude Bachand, Bloc Québécois member representing the southern Quebec riding of Saint- Jean, meets regularly with New York State politicians, including Senator Hillary Clinton, to discuss trade opportunities. A formal alliance dubbed the Triangle of Excellence now exists between St. Jean, Plattsburgh, N.Y. and Burlington, Vt. — a deal drawn up specifically to take advantage of the trade corridors linking New York, Boston, and Montreal. The organization has gone beyond promoting trade to encourage cultural exchange, Mr. Bachand says, with charmed results. A craft exhibition this year entitled Tearing Down the Borders evolved from last year’s display of local artists’ work called Hands Across the Border. The two sides continue to drum up ideas.

But while such initiatives have clearly benefited their regions, they are almost invariably hampered by red tape and border traffic. Mr. Bachand complains that he dedicates much of his time to briefing constituents on how deal with border controls. “There’s all sorts of papers to be filed. There’s all sorts of things that are bothering us.”

In White Rock, B.C., municipal officials have worked five years to establish a ferry link between the Lower Mainland town and a popular resort near Blaine, Wash. But they are still pushing the idea through various levels of government and the plan remains at the study stage. “We have a lot of tourists who come here and see this resort across the bay with a golf course and marina, and say ‘how can I get there?’ ” says Doug McLean, a White Rock city councillor. “And tourists on the other side are saying the same thing.”

Proponents of greater integration certainly have the numbers on their side, and they express both the vast complex of border controls between the two countries and the stunning growth of commerce that threatens to overwhelm it.

Cross-border trade between Canada and the United States, for instance, has more than doubled since the two countries ratified their first free-trade agreement in 1988, and is expected to double again in the next decade. Canada’s exports to the United States. last year topped $359.5-billion.

Yet there remains a Canada Customs station for every 60 kilometres of Canada’s 8,800-km land border and 7,400 employees to oversee the passage of 200 million people each year.

Meanwhile, nine out of every 10 foreigners who cross the border into Canada each year are American — a figure that has prompted many MPs to argue for a European Union-style perimeter system, in which external borders would be managed co-operatively.

In a recent survey by the National Post, a majority of MPs whose ridings border the United States support increased continental integration of border management. Restrictions at internal crossings, many said, would be relaxed to bring border policy in line with the reality of an increasingly transparent boundary.

Even a simple amalgamation of internal border services would cut in half the number of buildings needed to oversee border traffic — an economic argument that has convinced some members it is worth pursuing. “We have two huge infrastructures at each one of those border crossings — the American side and the Canadian side,” says David Price, of the Quebec riding of Compton-Stanstead. “I’m saying, why can’t they be combined?”

Jeannot Castonguay, MP for the New Brunswick riding of Madawaska-Restigouche, says the low Canadian dollar attracts a constant flow of cars across the “transparent” border at Edmundston, N.B., where the supermarkets are far more profitable than those on the American side. No one in Madawaska, Maine, thinks twice about crossing into Canada for a carton of milk, he says.

He questions the utility of a border policy that is designed to protect Canadian culture from American influence, since there is no cultural difference among the local people who cross the border each day for work or shopping.

“If we go back in history, it’s pretty much the same families on either side of the border,” he says. “Some of them changed their name from Levesque to Bishop, and the LeBruns are Browns, but we all come from the same place.”

The apparent growth of political support has been accompanied by a surprisingly aggressive campaign on the part of Canada Customs to ease the flow of freight and traffic.

In April, 2000, the agency launched a five-year plan containing a variety of programs designed to facilitate passage of goods and people entering Canada. A handful of the initiatives are already under way, operating largely beneath the radar of anti-free trade activists and cultural sovereigntists who oppose such liberalization.

Under a pilot project in Sarnia, Ont., and Port Huron, Mich., for example, some 4,100 local residents have obtained wallet-sized cards allowing them to cross the Blue Water Bridge in both directions with almost no delay. Under the so-called Nexus program, applicants with clean criminal records register themselves and their cars with Canadian and U.S. authorities. They are then afforded passage in a special bridge lane — no matter which direction they are headed.

Caitlin Mason, a 23-year-old violinist who lives in Sarnia, obtained the card so she could attend rehearsals in Port Huron with the region’s International Symphony Orchestra. Her only complaint is the lane’s restrictive operating hours. “It’s beneficial,” she says. “I mean, you just flash your card and sail right through. It would have been perfect were it not for the hours.”

Border dwellers are not the only ones in line for relief from delays. Customs has a launched similar pre-approval program for Canadian merchants, signing up 10 of the largest importers for a pre-approval program in which they remit their own duties and register their loads before they reach the border. Each company’s trucks will be rigged with bar-coded cards allowing them to make land crossings without delay. To date, some 95 carriers and 10,000 drivers have already been registered under the program.

Frequent air travellers will be next, as within a year the agency hopes to launch a pre-approval program for frequent flyers, which will allow them to enter Canada from the U.S. without delay.

Together, the projects reflect a shift in philosophy toward auditing and spot control rather than physical barriers, says Denis Lefebvre, the assistant commissioner of customs in Ottawa.

“The thrust of these initiatives is to do work away from the border,” he says. “What we want to do is allow your normal travellers — businesspeople and tourists — to go as easily as possible between countries. As you know, 85% of our trade is with the U.S., so what’s going on at that border is extremely important.”

So far the United States has reciprocated with only minor pilot projects (they are participating in the Nexus program but have no parallel for importers). But the two countries cannot, Mr. Lefebvre stresses, simply keep building border crossings to accommodate the traffic.

“Forever extending what I call the blue line, and by that I mean adding customs officers and tills, is not a long-term solution. So we have rethought the system.”

Of course, enthusiasm for such change is by no means universal. Joe Comartin, the New Democrat MP for Windsor-St. Clair, sees the erosion of border controls as a harbinger of Canada’s dwindling political and economic independence.

“What I’m worried about is the loss of sovereignty that [NAFTA and the 1988 Free Trade Agreement] have signified,” he says. “What’s happening at the border symbolizes what’s going on. At the rate we’re going, we’re going to lose our currency in the next five to 10 years. That will be the final blow of a completely integrated economy.”

Linda McQuaig, an economic nationalist and fervent critic of NAFTA, agreed in a recent column in the Financial Post, arguing that the politicians and diplomats now encouraging continental integration are hardly breaking new ground.

“We’ve been on a high-speed train towards economic integration since free trade with the United States was placed at the top of the policy agenda back in 1985,” she wrote.

“In fact, it’s hard to think of a more conventional thought these days than that we’re living in a global economy and everything’s becoming more integrated, blah, blah, blah.

“So it’s a little disingenuous for those pushing things further in this direction to claim they’re bucking the status quo.”