Mr. Chair, this evening we have agreed to debate an issue of growing interest and concern to Canadians, the western hemisphere travel initiative, or WHTI. The government looks forward to hearing the views of the House on this matter. Constructive ideas can help the government move forward in our shared interest in terms of how we respond to this new U.S. requirement.
The WHTI is not an easy or straightforward issue as it involves changing the requirements governing the immense legitimate flow of people across the shared border between Canada and the United States, and all of the impacts this might have for this historic and vital relationship.
This is neither a domestic nor a partisan issue. It involves a sovereign U.S. border requirement based in law and aimed primarily at U.S. citizens who are entering or re-entering the U.S. from Canada and elsewhere in the hemisphere.
The WHTI is of particular concern to Canadians. We know this by the direct representations we are receiving from our constituents, particularly in border cities and communities.
Canada has noted with great interest statements of concern within the United States itself, at the political level, among business and community stakeholders, and by individual citizens as to whether this initiative will truly result in greater security for Americans as well as whether there will be serious economic and border impacts in their communities.
A number of questions have been asked about whether the initiative can be implemented on time, both in the U.S. and in Canada. What fundamental security concerns are being addressed? Will there be enough capacity to process millions of new passports or new alternative documents which have yet to be decided on, or yet to be developed? How will border officials implement the new requirements? Will this cause delays and congestion at the border? What planning is underway? What resources are being dedicated to equip our already congested border crossings to deal with such new requirements? I say that looking at the member from Windsor whom I am sure will speak on this in a moment.
Before addressing these questions, we need to have a clear, shared understanding of what the WHTI is attempting to address and what important questions remain to be answered.
We need to recognize that WHTI did not appear out of nowhere. It is intended to implement section 7209 of the U.S. intelligence reform and terrorism provision act, IRTPA, passed in December 2004. It enacts recommendations put forward by the U.S. 9/11 commission. The act passed with near unanimous support in the U.S. senate. Most attention was focused on other well known provisions of the bill; perhaps however, not enough attention was paid to this particular provision.
If I mention this, it is because, following the announcement of the WHTI on April 5, we have all had the opportunity to hear on several occasions statements expressing concern, including statements by the President of the United States and members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives who, for the most part, had supported the legislation.
Canada is constantly re-evaluating its own entry requirements, and we are firmly committed to making our own foundation documents, such as passports, permanent resident cards, citizenship cards and so on, more secure. I believe that it is also important to recognize and acknowledge the fact that the United States has put in place a transparent, official procedure to gather input on the subject.
Indeed, on September 1, 2005, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department officially published in the U.S. federal registry an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking with respect to the WHTI, thereby initiating a 60 day period for receiving comments, which will end on October 31.
Comments are sought concerning the six sources of concern regarding the WHTI.
First, there is the types of documents denoting identity and citizenship that should be acceptable as alternatives to a passport.
Second, there is the economic impact of implementing this initiative.
Third, there is the monetary and other costs anticipated to be incurred by citizens as a result of the new document requirements.
Fourth, there are the possible benefits of this potential rulemaking.
Fifth, there are any alternative methods of complying with the legislation.
Sixth, there are the proposed stages for implementing the initiative.
Once the period for comments has expired and the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State have had an opportunity to examine the comments and possibly revise the bill, new official rules will be issued some time before the end of this year.
I can say that the Government of Canada, acting through the Department of Foreign Affairs, will submit official comments by October 31 under this proposed rulemaking procedure. These comments are currently being drawn up by nine departments and organizations affected by these issues, in concert and in consultation with one another, including the departments of Foreign Affairs, Citizenship and Immigration, Industry, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, International Trade, and Indian Affairs and Northern Development, as well as the Canada Border Services Agency and the Privy Council Office.
We have informed the main stakeholders all across Canada about this procedure, as well as the provincial and territorial authorities, and we have encouraged them to make their views and recommendations known, in concert with their American partners when appropriate.
It is now or never, therefore, for us to study these questions and mobilize to make our points of view known in Washington and elsewhere. The Government of Canada has already begun implementing an ambitious awareness-raising strategy though the Department of Foreign Affairs.
As part of our strategy so far, we have contacted provincial and territorial officials as well as the main stakeholders across the country to ensure that they are well aware of this consultation period, inform them about our position on this question, and encourage them to make their own views known.
We are doing the same in the United States with various stakeholders as well as political authorities in various states and municipalities by calling upon our diplomatic missions in Anchorage, Seattle, Detroit, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Boston, and so forth for this mission.
Our embassy in Washington is also having numerous discussions with all members of Congress who have any influence in this issue.
What should we be saying to our U.S. partners in addition to raising questions and concerns? First, we need to clearly communicate that we support and share the security concerns which the United States is trying to address through WHTI.
Second, we believe that we should offer to work with the U.S. as we are doing in a wide variety of areas under the smart borders action plan and more recently under the security and prosperity partnership announced last March. This is designed to strengthen the foundations for establishing identity and citizenship in our respective documents and passport issuance processes.
We believe that foundation documents such as birth certificates and citizenship cards need to be enhanced and better secured. Until foundation documents are enhanced and secured, the kinds of documents we use in both countries to apply for passports or currently to cross the border, a passport requirement or passport-based document at the land border will not alone improve our security.
Third, we need to underline that requiring passports or passport-like documents, as the only way for legal travel of all persons across shared land border for business people, service workers, friends, families and tourists, would negatively impact historic and vital relationships and that other options must be considered.
Fourth, we propose to work with the U.S. in assessing which document options would work for the best in our shared land border context including thorough testing at some of the busiest crossings.
However, in Canada's current estimation we do not believe that these efforts can be completed or implemented by January 1, 2008. We need to take the necessary steps to get this right. In conclusion, I look forward to hearing the views and recommendations of other members as this is, in my view, an important issue for all Canadians and all parliamentarians regardless of political stripe.