by David Shipley

A “thickening” border with the United States is a threat to Canada’s continued economic prosperity, says one of the key players in the establishment of North American free trade.

“We’ve got to work on reducing impediments at the border,” urges Derek Burney, the former head of the Canadian team that hammered out the precedent-setting 1987 free trade agreement between Canada and the U.S.

“It was this summer that I learned to my horror that the border wait at St. Stephen to go to Calais was as long as four to five hours,” said Burney on Wednesday. “This could be devastating for shipments of perishable seafood products, for example.”

Burney said he is ‘genuinely concerned’ about a trend towards what he called ‘border thickening.’

Moves towards increasing barriers at the Canada-U.S. border in the name of security runs counter to what’s happening in other areas of the world such as Europe, he said.

The thickening border with its long-delays to commercial traffic is hurting business in Canada and the U.S, said Burney.

Burney said Canada and the U.S. must move towards using technology to enable more pre-clearance shipping. Under such a model, cargo bound to cross the border would be inspected at its point of origin and sealed rather than being inspected at the border.

“There are all kinds of ways, it seems to me, that modern technology can be used to alleviate some of the congestion at the border without compromising security.”

The Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the U.S. formed the foundation for the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which brought Mexico into the fold.

Burney was the chief of staff to former prime minister Brian Mulroney and is a former ambassador to the United States. He was also the head of NB Power’s board of directors.

He has a vacation home in the province.

Wednesday marked the 20th anniversary of the achievement of the historic free trade agreement between Canada and the U.S., an event that was minutes away from failure.

The Canadian and U.S. teams were under a midnight deadline to hammer out the final terms of the deal so that then-U.S. President Ronald Regan could present the agreement to the U.S. Congress for an expedited or so-called fast-track vote, said Burney.

Such a vote would have limited U.S. legislators from tacking on amendments designed to alter or kill the deal and would only allow them to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the trade pact.

With Mulroney on the way from the prime minister’s official retreat at Harrington Lake to Ottawa to announce that based on a lack of progress the deal had failed, Burney and his team were able to reach a comprise and phoned the prime minister to let him know they had an agreement.

To mark the anniversary of the agreement, Burney penned a four page article in the Institute for Research on Public Policy’s Policy Options magazine.

In his piece, Burney argues that the benefits of free trade are clear 20 years after the agreement was reached.

The doomsday predictions of anti-free trade groups such as the impending demise of Canadian political independence failed to materialize, he said Wednesday.

The Canada-U.S. free trade agreement was the key issue of the 1998 federal election campaign, with the Liberals under John Turner opposed to the deal and backed by citizen, labour and cultural groups.

The Mulroney government won the election with a reduced majority and finalized the deal in 1989.

Burney praised the agreement in a telephone interview on Wednesday and defended it from criticisms that it did little to help Atlantic Canada during the softwood lumber dispute.

He did admit however that the U.S. government’s refusal to abide by NAFTA resolutions in favour of Canada during the lumber dispute was a setback.

“Their failure to abide by those verdicts, I think is a problem that has unsettled views, generally, about agreements with the United States,” said Burney.

“Maude Barlow would say that just proves we have to get rid of (NAFTA). No we don’t have to get rid of it. It tells me we have to work harder to – at making sure – that we make what we want more secure.”

Barlow, head of the Council of Canadians, a citizen’s group opposed to trade ties with the U.S., continues to be a vocal opponent of trade liberalization, including the Atlantica initiative.

Atlantica aims to build on the opportunities created by free trade between Canada and the U.S. by enhancing transportation links while reducing border delays.

Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, said Wednesday free trade has benefited Atlantic Canada and that increased north-south trade will also bear economic fruit for the region.

Cirtwill pointed out examples such as the acquisition of Bangor Power by Nova Scotia’s Emera as an example of how Canadian firms have benefit from free trade.

As well, the Sable off-shore natural gas project would not have been possible without free trade, he said.

He also cited the ability of an Annapolis Valley pie company to grow its business by shipping its products through the Wal-Mart mega-retail chain.

Cirtwill said long-term opponents of initiatives designed to bolster free trade aren’t likely to be swayed by the evidence showing Canada’s economic benefits from such deals.

“The few leftovers are the hard-nosed holdouts. They’re the people who hate trade at any cost.”