By Alex Binkley

An agreement between Washington and Ottawa to expand the preclearance of goods and people crossing the border between the two countries could, if all goes well, take effect as early as next year. Canadian and American officials will need that long to work out the details involved in implementing a pre-clearance agreement signed in March in Washington, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety says. With the amount of support for the agreement on both sides of the border, that should be doable. The bigger question mark surrounds the need for both Parliament and Congress to pass legislation ratifying the agreement. With a federal election in Canada this fall and the U.S. presidential election in 2016, the political approval of the deal might be delayed.

Regardless of the outcome of the two elections, groups like the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and Canadian/American Border Trade Alliance are unlikely to let either government backslide on the promise. “The Canadian/American Border Trade Alliance applauds pre-inspection as a transformational initiative of the Canada-U.S. Beyond the Border Action Plan that enhances the dynamics of a secure border inspection process that delivers expediting of Trusted Trader border crossing,” says James Phillips, the Alliance’s President and CEO.

Perrin Beatty, President and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said a preclearance agreement between Canada and the United States is a long-standing promise. The Chamber “believes that new preclearance operations will greatly improve the competitiveness of North American trade.”

When the agreement is law, Canadian and American border inspectors will be able to “conduct preclearance operations in each other’s territory,” Beatty noted. “A similar agreement has been in place at a number of Canadian airports for several years and has been a massive success. Such preclearance operations greatly reduce congestion at the border and allow for streamlined processing of trusted trade and travel.”

The numbers behind the preclearance agreement make an eloquent case for implementing it. “Every day, nearly 400,000 people cross the Canada-U.S. land border, along with over $2 billion in goods and services,” says Public Safety Canada. “Two-way trade between Canada and the United States was worth nearly $800 billion last year.”

The agreement would “strengthen our relationship and enhance our mutual security, prosperity and economic competitiveness, while ensuring respect for the sovereignty of both nations.”

Beyond the Border was intended to both enhance North American security while accelerating the legitimate flow of people and goods. A number of pilot projects on the preclearance of truck traffic have demonstrated the concept can work although many details have to be sorted out.

David Bradley, President of the Canadian Trucking Alliance, said the preclearance agreement “reflects the hard work of many people in the Canadian and U.S. governments.” It provides a legal framework “for more fulsome discussions to implement a permanent model of true preclearance.” Even with the need for additional work on the deal and enabling legislation, “The yardsticks have definitely been moved,” he added.

In advance of the agreement, Canada and the U.S. tested two truck cargo pre-inspection pilots. The first was at the Pacific Highway crossing between British Columbia and Washington State for six months in 2013. The second was a 12-month trial at the Peace Bridge between Ontario and New York during 2014 and 2015. An evaluation of the second pilot will be completed by the end of this July. Bradley said the two pilots were really a pre-inspection exercise rather than full preclearance. “True preclearance would see a truck fully cleared by customs before arriving at the border. This would allow a truck that has been precleared to cross the border without having to stop at all. This is where the potential for real-world efficiency lies.”

The agreement commits the two governments to implementing a comprehensive approach to preclearance in the land, rail, marine and air modes so they all treated in the same manner, the department said. “This will make it easier to implement and govern preclearance activities.”

Preclearance began in Canada in 1952 when U.S. officers began screening travellers for U.S.-bound planes at the Toronto International Airport, the department pointed out. Canada and the U.S. reached their first air transport preclearance agreement in 1974. It was updated in 2001.

“Each year, roughly 11 million passengers are pre-cleared for flights to the U.S. at eight Canadian airports under the current bilateral air preclearance framework, reducing wait times for these passengers and often reducing the number of connections they require.”

Once it enters into force, this new comprehensive Agreement would enable Canada and the U.S. to implement new and/or expanded preclearance operations “where and when it makes sense to do so, while continuing to ensure border security and integrity,” Public Safety added.

“It would make an important contribution towards ensuring the legitimate flow of trade and travel, while continuing to ensure border security and integrity – efficient and effective cross-border travel and trade are essential for the Canadian and U.S. economies, and for the prosperity of our communities.” It would also ensure border officers “have the authorities they require to effectively carry out their responsibilities; preclearance facilities meet operational requirements; and preclearance operations are generally efficient and effective. Officers working in the marine, rail and road modes would be able to carry firearms, but not airports where armed police are already stationed.

“Shippers and carriers will be able to propose sites where preclearance should be offered,” the department explained. Governments will have the final say. “This is of prime importance to the Governments of Canada and the U.S., which have some of the highest levels of cross-border trade and travel in the world – activities that are vital to the economic prosperity of both nations.”

Canada and the U.S. have also agreed to create an enhanced Preclearance Consultative Group “to provide greater rigour and accountability for overseeing the implementation of the Agreement. A bi-national council of senior Canadian and U.S. officials would be established and would meet regularly to facilitate and monitor the implementation of the framework.”