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November 22, 2001 Cooperation on border security is the best defence: Norrin Ripsman



Norrin Ripsman

Professor Norrin Ripsman

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Frank Kuin

The threat to Canadian sovereignty posed by American policy demands can best be met by actively cooperating with U.S. proposals, says Professor Norrin Ripsman, of Concordia’s Political Science Department.

Paradoxically, the most effective way to keep Canadian policies such as immigration standards under Ottawa’s control is by meeting American requirements quietly on Canadian terms, said Ripsman, an expert on national security issues.

Speaking in the context of American demands to bring Canadian immigration and refugee practices in line with American standards in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, he argued that vocal resistance to defend Canadian sovereignty is counterproductive. Engagement through diplomacy behind closed doors is a better approach.

“The best way to defend Canadians’ interests is through pragmatism, rather than through defiance,” he said, noting that in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, “the Chrétien government talked boldly about not compromising Canadian values.”

Adopting a confrontational attitude to deal with charges that Canada is a “safe haven for terrorists,” while understandable from a domestic perspective, might do Canada more harm than good, Ripsman said. Specifically, an uncooperative stance by Ottawa can damage Canada’s vital trade relationship with the U.S.

“If we are going to take a bellicose stand towards the United States, we have to recognize that the United States may respond in a bellicose way,” he said. For example, the U.S. may react by subjecting the Canadian border to the same tight controls it practices at the U.S. border with Mexico.

Indeed, the border between Canada and the United States, at which more than $1 billion in two-way trade normally crosses every day, has been on high alert since Sept. 11 in response to charges that Canada is a gateway to the United States for terrorists.

Although none of the 19 perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks are alleged to have entered the United States from Canada, American politicians and media often portray the country’s supposedly lax immigration and refugee standards as the weakest link in efforts to keep undesirables out of North America.

U.S. critics want to see Canadian immigration and refugee procedures harmonized with American ones. Some propose a North American “security perimeter,” whereby common standards are applied to who may enter into the United States and Canada. The land border could then remain open.

Negotiating continental security

Such American proposals tend to offend the sense of sovereignty of many Canadians. But rather than by resistance, Canadian sovereignty might be best served by ensuring Canada has a place at the table when common security matters are discussed, Ripsman argued. “We have to change our focus from so obviously defending our sovereignty.”

Rather, it must be recognized that Canada has an interest in tighter security as well. “Even in the United States did not dictate anything, Canada has an interest in making certain that our hospitality isn’t being abused for the purposes of undermining our democratic values.”

Thus, participation in continental security talks is the best means for Canada to manage its part of any future perimeter. “We can negotiate best by being cooperative. There is room for bargaining behind the scenes, and Canada can decide to some extent what measures it will take — provided that by and large, the American security demands are met.”

As a model for Canada-U.S. cooperation, Ripsman cited the NORAD agreement for continental air defence. By agreeing to participate in U.S. defence measures for the continent, “Canada was able to retain a say over its own defence,” he said.

Canada’s choices are limited in the face of American pressure, Ripsman acknowledged. “That’s the nature of living next to the great power of the world.”