- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A planned U.S. rule that would require passports for anyone entering the country by land from Canada must be implemented with “clarity and flexibility” to avoid damaging the world’s most dynamic bilateral trading relationship, Canadian Ambassador Michael Wilson said yesterday.

“Yes, we are very concerned about the rule. We have been urging our American counterparts to take the time to get it right,” Mr. Wilson said in a luncheon interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

Canadian officials and many U.S. lawmakers from states along the border fear the abrupt implementation of the passport requirement could cause major delays at border checkpoints and impede the free flow of goods and tourists. Two-way trade totaled more than $740 billion last year, and Mr. Wilson noted that Canada is the leading foreign trade partner for more than 39 U.S. states.

“If there’s major congestion at the crossing points, it quickly becomes an economic issue as well,” Mr. Wilson said.

The State Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have until June 1, 2009, to implement tougher documentation rules for travelers crossing by land from Mexico and Canada. DHS officials are pressing for a quicker implementation schedule, citing the smooth adoption of similar rules for air travelers last month.

“People have got the message” about the new passport requirement, “and that’s good news,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

But Mr. Wilson noted there was a “huge surge” of Canadians applying for passports ahead of the traditional winter school break, when many Canadians head to Florida or other southern U.S. destinations.

Since air travel represents only about 15 percent of the total cross-border traffic, the pending rule for land crossings will have a far greater impact, Mr. Wilson said.

“We will need advance notice, clarity and flexibility in the implementation of this rule,” Mr. Wilson said. “We have taken that message regularly to Homeland Security, but they are making it very clear they want to do this as quickly as possible.”

Premiers from four Canadian provinces will visit Washington this month to argue against an early date for the passport mandate. Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, New York Democrat, has introduced a bill to force U.S. officials to accept new, high-tech driver’s licenses in lieu of passports to ease checkpoint hassles.

While border security remains a major issue, U.S.-Canadian relations overall are very strong, Mr. Wilson said, particularly compared with frosty cross-border ties in recent years.

Tax-cutting Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has proven a strong U.S. ally in the war in Afghanistan, boosting defense spending and putting Canadian troops on the front lines in the battle against fundamentalist Taliban forces. Almost three dozen Canadians have died in the Afghan war.

“It can’t help but bring you closer together when you are comrades-in-arms, when you’re sitting at the table and going to the same strategy sessions,” he said.

He said ordinary Canadians have trouble understanding the “caveats” some NATO countries have adopted to limit their deployments in Afghanistan, leaving just a few nations to bear the brunt of the fighting.

Mr. Wilson, a leading Canadian banker and former finance minister, said that many of the legendary nasty trade disputes that marred bilateral relations in the past on goods from beer to wheat have largely subsided.

He called recent U.S. complaints about new Canadian provincial subsidies to struggling lumber producers a “brushfire” that was not likely to upset last year’s carefully wrought compromise on overall lumber trade.

Mr. Wilson said he decided to take the Washington posting after Mr. Harper agreed that the envoy would balance bilateral issues with a broader push to work with the United States on joint priorities, from trade to nonproliferation to crises in such trouble spots as Haiti and Darfur.

“In that sense, it’s a very easy place to be for me because the prime minister and the Canadian government share a larger view of our relations,” he said.

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