Wednesday, April 10, 2002
The Chronicle Herald

NOTE: The following article appeared simultaneously in the following papers: the Moncton Times Transcript and The Chronicle Herald

Free trade? Not with a border like this

By Brian Lee Crowley

Canada and the US enjoy one of the closest, most intimate business and economic relationships in the world. We have all heard about the billion dollars in trade that flows across the border every single day. Yes, there are disputes that mar that relationship. Yet they remind us the overwhelming bulk of our trade is free of such disputes.

But the importance of our trade with the US also underlines just how vital the border as an institution is to our prosperity. The border isn’t just a physical line. It is also the agencies that look after who and what gets into the country.

In recent years, there have been major scares for Canada when the US seemed to be changing its border priorities. About two years ago, for example, Congress passed a law that required everyone entering or leaving the US to file a written report, which threatened huge queues at the border. After some scrambling, that was resolved sensibly.

Now, post-September 11th, the US is deeply – and rightly – concerned about its internal security. That’s meant a new set of priorities at the border, including US Customs inspectors working in the Port of Halifax. Eventually, because our interests require it, we will work out a continental perimeter border, jointly administered with the US. That will mean common standards so that people and goods arriving in North America are subjected to a screening acceptable to both countries.

Canadians focus on what the US does on its side of the border, often ignoring our own government’s priorities. Judging by my own recent experience, those priorities are obstruction and harassment. Rarely have I been subjected to such a pettifogging, obdurate and self-centred bureaucracy as the day I tried to cross from Calais to St. Stephen, one of the Maritimes’ two major conduits with the US.

Most private individuals never experience how commercial users of the border are treated, but I did. I had bought $60 worth of equipment for a small business, and had the misfortune to be truthful with the border people that it was for commercial use. I could tell by the gleeful glint in the border agents’ eyes that my soul was forfeit.

No longer could the roomful of underemployed customs agents reserved for private people deal with me. I was ominously directed to the commercial side, and I duly trudged across the forecourt to a dark and dingy building. I told the woman behind the counter about this tiny purchase for my business, and her eyes raked me with contempt. Who was my broker, she barked. Of course, I didn’t have one. Well, she exclaimed, then I needed to go to the computer terminal on a dingy desk and try to wade my way through reams of information to find the appropriate customs classification for the equipment I had. And of course I needed my HST business number. But I don’t travel with that kind of documentation. She flatly declared that without it, I was just out of luck.

All this for $60 worth of merchandise, I bleated meekly. She fixed me with another contemptuous stare.

Off my partner and I went to do battle with the bureaucratic monster. Another agent took pity on us and gave us a temporary business number, a possibility that the first agent hadn’t deigned to acknowledge.

After several hours of struggle, we emerged with our form. We then patiently stood while several commercial drivers, pitiful refugees from Dante’s inferno, periodically sallied forth to try and get what they needed processed. Of the three people behind the counter, only one was working. The other two leaned against the furniture, their professional responsibilities being to pepper the one person working with inane questions about who had won the motorcycle at the local raffle.

When we finally broke through the long speculations about whether the winner of the motorcycle was from Ontario or only lived there, we were told sternly three times that we had left 80 cents off the price of our merchandise, as if this was going to be sufficient to cause our little form to be shredded and send us to the back of the queue. We bowed and scraped enough that the agent decided no further humiliations were necessary. After an intensive search of our car, we were allowed to go.

And what did four hours of our labour, plus a total of more than an hour of the labour of at least 6 agents I had to deal with, net the Government of Canada? No duties – trade with the US is duty free – but about $7 in GST. Of course, since this was a commercial transaction, my business gets to claim back all that GST. For all this effort, then, the Government of Canada lost $7 worth of revenue.

Maybe some day we’ll have free trade. In the meantime, abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: bcrowley@herald.ns.ca