Forever on tenterhooks: Canada and the US

THE world’s longest, undefended border" and "Neighbours joined at the hip" are just the two most common ways to describe the Canada–US relationship. From afar, it looks like two Western democracies on the same page on most global issues, sharing the North American continent almost exclusively between them.

By George Abraham

Published: Tue 17 Apr 2007, 8:13 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:06 AM

Far from it. From Ottawa’s perspective, there are more differences than commonalities and that’s the way the government would like it to be. Although the daylight that separates the US from Canada is more nuance than substance in the larger scheme of things, it is the policy disputes and the trenchant criticism from parliamentarians and sundry commentators in Canada that gets all the play in the national media. It does not take much to get Canadians worked up about the "bully" to the south.

Last week witnessed one of those periodic spasms. Canadians were shocked to read the story of a university student from Ottawa who was detained in the US state of Georgia for 11 hours after running a stop sign and speeding. The student, Cheryl Kuehn, was en route to Florida with her husband, and while the couple was willing to post bond almost immediately to secure her release, the real issue for the cops in Georgia was whether or not Ms Kuehn was legally allowed to be in the US

"’Terrified’ Carleton student spent 11 hours in Georgia jail for minor traffic violation: 23-year-old fingerprinted, forced to strip naked, don jail outfit and left in cell with inmates while officials checked her immigration details," ran the Ottawa Citizen headline. The Georgia police were apparently being diligent in enforcing a new state law that requires the police to validate the legal status of all foreigners who are charged with any kind of offence.

The newspaper later reported that it had taken just 11 minutes for the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to confirm Ms Kuehn’s status as a legal visitor, but for reasons that remain unclear, the police did not release her until many hours later. By the time the story hit Canada, the governor of Georgia, local county officials and police top brass were being profusely apologetic. There were even calls in Canada for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to talk to the US President, ‘to take this up at the highest levels.’

An outraged population wrote letters to the editor and Stephen J Maddex, a Canadian attorney who works in Houston, Texas, speculated that the new Georgia law was par for the course in the wake of 9-11. "Whether the 9-11 attacks could have been averted by more stringent security measures will never be known, but the fact that the people of Georgia are so afraid for their well-being that they seem to believe there is a connection between preventing terrorism and incarcerating a Canadian tourist on her way to a vacation in Florida is as dangerous as it is illogical," Mr Maddex said in a published commentary. "This does not make Americans bad people. But it can make them bad neighbours," he surmised.

Good neighbours need good picket fences, and historically, this has not been the case. Until 9-11, the border was a namesake, with trade and people flowing across with few hassles and no documentation. That changed almost overnight. In the early hours after the planes hit the World Trade Centre, it was reported that some of the hijackers had entered the US via Canada. It took weeks for the Canadian government to set the record straight, but by then the damage had been done. It became accepted wisdom in Washington that the border to the north was "soft" and needed reinforcement.

The fallout from the events of that day continues to worry Canadians, especially their government’s complicity in the all-encompassing War on Terror. Benamar Benatta, a former Algerian air force lieutenant, was in a Toronto detention centre awaiting the outcome of his asylum application when he was suddenly shipped off to New York on the morning after 9-11. He languished in New York jails for five years before he was returned last July to Toronto, where he has filed a fresh refugee application.

Mr Benatta insists he did not want to go the US when he was transported across the border by Canadian officials on September 12, 2001, while immigration spokespersons in Ottawa say he left voluntarily. The insinuation, of course, is that the Americans wanted to talk to the Algerian visitor because he happened to be a Muslim who was in custody on 9-11 and also because he carried pictures showing him posing in front of the World Trade Centre and the White House.

"Why was I singled out? I want some answers. I just can’t live like this. I want to get over this but I need some answers," he laments. That is an unlikely outcome. Even in the cause célèbre case of Maher Arar, who won a $10.5 million (Cdn) settlement from the Canadian government, Washington remains unapologetic and refuses to divulge why it decided to ship him off to Syria for 10 months of detention and torture.

This anecdotal narrative of harassment and poor neighbourliness, however, belies the true nature of the relationship. For instance, the Canadian government has just disclosed that it spent $9 million (Cdn) in rushing aid and naval carriers to assist victims of hurricane Katrina in 2005. Even as Katrina was striking New Orleans and demolishing levees, a Canadian destroyer, two frigates, an oil supply ship, helicopters, divers and 950 naval sailors were headed for the Gulf of Mexico. The irony is that none of this assistance was actually required or requested, but Canada responded nonetheless.

Similarly, the leaders of the US, Canada and Mexico are scheduled to hold a summit in the Canadian province of Alberta this summer. On the agenda is the sensitive topic of sharing Canada’s water resources with dry states in the American Mid-West. Add that to Canada’s standing as the largest supplier of petroleum to the US and you get a good sense of where things actually stand, freewheeling commentary notwithstanding.

George Abraham is a journalist based in Ottawa, Canada

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