Out with the old irritants, in with the new ones in Canada-U.S. relations.
This new dispute has been quietly simmering for months and boiled over on a public stage Thursday.
It involves dysfunction in a Canada-U.S. program for pre-screened trusted travellers, who can cross the border more quickly with what’s known as a NEXUS card.
The U.S. has shuttered offices in Canada that process applications for these cards while it presses for changes to the program.
A Canadian official made clear her country’s displeasure in an unusually curt assessment before a high-level audience in Washington.
“I’m going to be super undiplomatic and blunt here because I think this is important for friends sometimes,” said Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S.
“The [NEXUS] program is being held hostage.… It’s disappointing and it’s frustrating for us.”
She aired those feelings in the presence of numerous government and industry officials at a conference hosted at the Canadian embassy and organized by the Future Borders Coalition. The commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Chris Magnus, was seated in the front row, metres away.
The closure of facilities stems from a disagreement about immunity from prosecution — not unlike the protections for diplomats.
The U.S. government contends that its employees in NEXUS offices deserve similar immunity from Canadian prosecution while doing their job in Canada.
These protections already exist for U.S. border agents at Canadian airports working in customs pre-clearance sites; in the U.S. view, some of these NEXUS officies are co-located in the same facility and it makes no sense for different rules to apply in different parts of the office.
U.S. view: Canada has had years to make this change
The U.S. says it’s repeatedly informed Canada for several years that this was a priority. And there’s apparently been little progress.
“This is not new news,” a U.S. embassy spokesperson in Ottawa said Thursday.
“The United States stands ready to reopen NEXUS centres in Canada once Canada addresses these concerns.”
Both countries closed their processing centres during the pandemic. This spring, the offices in the U.S. reopened; but the ones in Canada stayed closed because the Americans refused to staff them.
Hillman said Canada is willing to find a solution. But she said it’s a complicated issue and may not even be possible under Canadian law.
It’s the U.S. hardball approach she said she resents.
“What I do question are the tactics, to be honest with you: I feel the tactics are heavy-handed and not indicative of the relationship we have,” Hillman said.
In an interview later with CBC News she added: “It’s not how friends do business. It’s unacceptable. We’re increasingly frustrated. I think it’s important to say so.”
Could online interviews solve impasse?
There’s now a backlog of more than 334,000 people awaiting NEXUS cards and Hillman said it’s getting worse every day.
She disputed news reports that indicated that the core irritant involves whether U.S. officials can carry guns on Canadian soil.
Hillman told CBC News that’s not the issue: “They’re not asking for the right to carry firearms. They’re not.” She said the issue is Americans wanting immunity from prosecution for acts committed by Americans while working in a Canadian-based office.
She said it’s complicated and these offices are not like airport pre-clearance facilities, because some are located within Canadian cities.
She said she’s discussed the issue with the head of the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, and he’s committed to the NEXUS program.
A predecessor to Mayorkas who held the role in the Trump administration said the issue had already started bubbling up when he was in office.
Kevin McAleenan said he didn’t want to comment much and deferred to the current administration on the issue.
But the Trump-era head of the U.S. border-protection agency and interim head of the Department of Homeland Security suggested a longer-term solution: Move everything online.
“I would recommend that they look at remote solutions to bridge this gap,” McAleenan told CBC News. “We’ve done that in other contexts.”
Trump official: I love ArriveCan
Speaking of moving processes online, McAleenan and several other speakers at the conference offered their opinions on the controversial ArriveCan app.
Several defended the much-criticized app and regretted that it was viewed by the public as a pandemic-related program.
One attendee described it as a way of digitizing the customs process and called it a step toward a long-term goal: eliminating physical customs kiosks from airports altogether, simplifying travel.
“I’m a fan of the ArriveCAN app,” McAleenan told one panel.
“We don’t have that in the U.S. We should’ve had that before the pandemic.”
Speaking on the same panel, his former Canadian counterpart expressed regret about how the app was disparaged.
Use of ArriveCan is now optional, after a public backlash.
“It was a super-important opportunity for us and I’m disappointed about how a vocal minority gave it such a bad rap in a very short period of time,” said John Ossowski, the former president of the Canada Border Services Agency.
He said the program became a poster child for resistance against vaccine mandates, when it was really an attempt to build a next-generation customs system.
He also ridiculed reports that programmers had managed to replicate the $54 million app in two days: “Did you build in the AI tools?” Ossowski said. “Did you do 70 different versions of it? Did you get it approved in the App Store?”