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07/12/2013

Is this the end of 'Blame Canada'?

South-park-blame-canada
South Park's Blame Canada

The surprise announcement that Janet Napolitano is resigning as America's Homeland Security chief awakens fresh -- some will say faint -- hope that the United States may finally be ready to shed the "elephant's paranoia" of Canada as a conduit for terror.

Nobody knows yet who will replace the former Arizona governor in September, when she makes the unusual jump to academia as head of the 10-campus University of California.

 But one can hope President Barack Obama will look to his northern flank of stateside loyalists to fill the post, now that Homeland Security, the behemoth government agency that arose from the ashes of 9/11, has gone three for three on secretaries that view the Canadian border with sustained apprehension.

Canadians, far better than Americans, understand how completely U.S.-Canada border security has tightened over the past 12 years, in a privacy-shedding process that now includes the unprecedented sharing of customs data.

Napolitano completed the project, from the introduction of drones over the Canadian border to the implementation of new surveillance technology that reads what's in your wallet, whether you like it or not. As the going got expensive, Napolitano then warmed to the idea of a "land border crossing fee" to help pay the freight.

But Napolitano also made heads explode in Ottawa in 2009, resurrecting the infamously false trope of Canada as a conduit for the 9/11 bombers in an interview with the CBC.

"Canada is not Mexico -- it doesnt' have a drug war going on. It didn't have 6,000 homicides that were drug-related last year," Napolitano explained to correspondent Neil MacDonald.

"Nonetheless, to the extent that terrorists have come into our country, or suspected or known terorists have come into our country, it has been across the Canadian border."

Napolitano said she was referring to "not just those" perpetrators of 9/11 attacks, "but others as well. So again, every country is entitled to have a border. It's part of sovereignty."

Ottawa fired back in a bid for damage control. Others, including Slate, also weighed in on Canada's side. But Napolitano's hardline held sway in many U.S. corners, echoing a decade of earlier angst ranging from former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff's "deepest fears" about Canada to the original New York Times exploration of border weaknesses in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.

Canadian diplomats in Washington privately acknowledge that transboundary security whack-a-mole -- the game of tamping down the northern-border terror myth -- is probably eternal. As long as there are borders and fingers, someone will point anxiously at ours. The file requires constant vigilence.

But it never hurts to remind Americans that this is not their mother's border anymore. With the recent launch of chip-embedded 10-year passports, Canada has officially joined the ePassort club. And what once was a neighbourly and informal frontier that sometimes required nothing at all to cross now is a barrier so tight that Canadians can't even send charitable aid to tornado victims in Oklahoma without incurring a paperwork nightmare.

The other thing that is here to stay is Homeland Security itself. Currently splayed out in locations throughout DC, the department is in the process of combining nearly all of its 22 divisions under a single roof.

The $3.9-billion complex -- the single largest U.S. federal construction project since The Pentagon -- is rising on the site of a former asylum that once housed poet Ezra Pound and John Hinckley, Ronald Reagan's would-be assasin.

Canada will be watching closely to learn who will occupy its executive office.

Mitch Potter is the Toronto Star's Washington Bureau Chief, his third foreign posting after previous assignments to London and Jerusalem. Potter led the Toronto Star’s coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he won a 2006 National Newspaper Award for his reportage. His dispatches include datelines from 33 countries since 2000. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites 

 

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