Mr. Chair, I am very pleased to make a few comments concerning something known as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.
For those just tuning into this or who are unaware of what the problem is or what that name refers to, this is an initiative that will require all travellers returning to the United States to have a passport or other accepted document that establishes the bearer's identity and nationality to enter or re-enter the United States.
This is a big change from what we have now. We have heard the comments tonight, and we get the comments, particularly those of us who live in border communities, about how devastating the impact of this will be and what a bad idea this is.
I should let the House know that a meeting took place this morning in Buffalo, New York, that was organized on the American side by Congresswoman Louise Slaughter. This was referred to by my colleague, the member for Welland.
Congresswoman Slaughter brought together several of her congressional colleagues. Senator Schumer was there. Senator Hillary Clinton was there via a conference call. The member for Welland and I were there. All the border mayors were there. There was a huge crowd because of the importance that is placed on this particular initiative and because of the impact that it can have.
Each of us were given an opportunity to say a few words. The first words that I indicated on my behalf, on behalf of those of us on the Canadian side, were that we are all in this together. This is not something that will hurt just the Canadian side of the border. That came through loud and clear from our colleagues along the American side. This is an initiative that has far-reaching consequences and that will hurt.
I should put that in the present tense. This is hurting right now. I talk to tourism operators in the Niagara area. They tell me that travel to Niagara is off. It is off at the borders because there is a misapprehension in the United States that this initiative has already been implemented. When I was in Washington a couple of months ago, I raised this with some American officials. They asked what the problem was, saying that this initiative was not coming in for two years yet. I said, “Two years? This is a problem right now”.
This is a problem right now on both sides of the border. That is one of the things that came through loud and clear. It is not because any of us there are any less worried about security than anybody else, but the point that I have made, and others have made it and have agreed with it, is that Canada is not the problem. The Canada-U.S. border is not the problem.
I can appreciate that there are international and world security issues of concern to the United States and Canada. I accept that. I recognize that. When I was in Washington, I heard considerable information about problems on the southern United States border. The Americans have a problem there, but I urge them not to bring in an initiative that will hurt us along this long, undefended border. I think it is incumbent upon all Canadian parliamentarians and everyone in this country and those in the United States who realize what is happening to urge them not to do that.
At the same time, I appreciate that we have to continue to do more for security. Indeed, in the first speech that I made in returning to this Parliament, I raised the whole question of border security. I indicated that I believe the federal government has to do more to provide security along our borders. In fact, I pointed out to the government that because the federal government was not doing enough the Niagara Regional Police has to fill in and look after some of the security concerns. I said that was wrong. It is not that the NRP is complaining about it, but it is a responsibility of the federal government.
It seems to me that if we want to head off initiatives like the one we are dealing with today, that is a pretty good place to start: start putting more money into security. It is not just me saying it. It is not just members of the Conservative Party saying it.
One of the members of the government's own caucus is saying it. One of the members' senatorial colleagues has chaired a committee report called “Borderline Insecure”, which has raised some of the issues that we have talked about in this Parliament. These are some of the legitimate security concerns at the border. I think that is one of the reasons why we have seen labour disruptions at the border. I have raised the matter a couple of times in question period and again tonight. These incidents have happened across the country, not only in Niagara.
Why do they happen? The customs officers tell me they get an alert that some dangerous criminal may or may not be heading for the Canadian border. The customs officers are completely unarmed. There are no armed police officers backing them up on a continuous basis. That is why they have had labour problems.
I have asked the question. We have had four of these work stoppages in my area. Do we have to have 40 of them before something gets done to settle some of these issues? I asked it in what I think was a very constructive way. I am asking it again because I have been informed today that the very bridge that we returned across after our meeting in Buffalo was the scene of another work stoppage.
It is not enough, in my opinion, for the parliamentary secretary to suggest to me that they have been investigated and that there are security concerns. We can debate all night about whether there are security concerns, but I know we have labour concerns. As well, I have concerns as the representative of that area that if these bridges are shut down because of labour problems this too has a huge impact on the Niagara area. It is my understanding that the traffic coming into Canada on the Peace Bridge into Fort Erie is backed up for miles.
I guess this will be like other resolutions of these things. It will take another 24 to 36 hours, but how much damage does that do? Also, does that give confidence to our American colleagues that we have a good handle on what is happening at the bridge?
These issues have to be addressed. I think they can be addressed by the government. I think it takes a great deal of determination and leadership to do that. I think it is something that should be a priority for this government, because when this border does not operate properly, everybody in this country gets hurt.
There was a reception with representatives of the Canadian auto parts industry. I was chatting with them. Some of them made the point that they are making decisions for the next five or ten years on whether that border is going to be operating properly. If they start making decisions by not locating business or not expanding their business in Canada, that too hurts all Canadians.
These are some of the issues. I have made the point, I think others have made the point, and I think the point must be made very forcefully by the government to the United States that we are not the problem. The point must be made that in finding the solutions to a problem, a problem that I believe does not exist along the Canadian-U.S. border--although we have the right to have security concerns and we want good security--to bring in an elephant gun to kill a flea is not what should be done. That is what is going to happen if we start requiring passports for everybody on either side of this border.
I am suggesting that it is not necessary. That came out unanimously this morning. We had this meeting with all these people. We were directing our comments to Acting Secretary Jasinski of Homeland Security. It was unanimous among the people there that the whole idea of passports for Canadians and Americans along the border is a bad idea.
As for the idea of what other alternatives are available, one or two individuals said something like NEXUS. I would have a little more confidence in some sort of an alternative if the NEXUS program were working better. There has been very little uptake of the NEXUS program. It is not anywhere near what CANPASS was. We can speculate on a number of reasons. I have had people tell me that it costs too much. It is basically $80 Canadian per person. For a family of four paying $300 or $400, it is costly.
More important, we have to ask ourselves if it is available to people who live along the border. How about the individual who lives in Akron and says he might want to go to Canada, up to Niagara, Toronto or Ottawa for a week? Are people going to come here if they think there is a problem or if they need some additional security other than their driver's licences?
I have urged American officials to look to upgrading driver's licences. Most people crossing the borders have licences or something similar to that. That would be a solution to whatever problem they think we are facing at the border.
However, I hope that in meetings with Condoleezza Rice and through correspondence and communications between the Prime Minister and the President they get on this thing, because if it drifts along for the next couple of years it will mean that more harm will come to trade, travel and the movement of goods and services between these two countries.
That would be a shame, because it should not happen between these two great countries, these two great friends. This matter should be addressed now before it does any more harm.