This week the House of Commons is debating Bill C-23, An Act respecting the pre-clearance of persons and goods in Canada and the United States. I know that this Bill has attracted a great deal of interest and concern and I would like to discuss this piece of legislation in some detail.
Our longstanding relationship with the United States is like no other in the world. More than 400,000 people flow back-and-forth between Canada and the United States every single day. Close to $2.5 billion in two-way trade moves between our two countries every day. We work hard in cooperation with the United to facilitate travel between both countries that is both secure and efficient for travellers. One of the ways we do so is by establishing “pre-clearance” procedures that allow the traveller to complete American customs and immigration procedures in Canada before they board their aircraft. When a traveller from Canada to the US lands in the United States, there are no customs line-ups, no delays and the peace of mind that comes from knowing you won’t arrive in a country after a long flight only to be turned away and sent directly back home.
Pre-clearance is more than just a convenience that saves us time, it also allows us to fly directly to cities throughout the United States that don’t have customs or immigration offices.
We have become accustomed to pre-clearing here home at our own Edmonton International Airport and many millions of Canadians have also used pre-clearance at airports in Vancouver, Calgary , Winnipeg, Toronto Pearson, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax.
Better still, to provide travellers with even more options, there is an agreement-in-principle to expand pre-clearance operations to new Canadian locations including Jean Lesage Airport in Quebec City, Billy Bishop Airport in Toronto, Montreal Central Station and Rocky Mountaineer in Vancouver.
It is important to keep in mind that pre-clearance is the same as clearing customs at your country of destination. The country of destination has the right to interview the traveler to find out the purpose of their visit, and to ensure that the traveller poses no risk to their country. This has always been the case, and we enjoy the ability to go through this process in the familiarity of our own country.
Changes proposed in Bill C-23
Citizens have expressed some concerns related to proposed pre-clearance changes in C-23 does. I am happy to address these concerns here. It is important to note that all proposed changes in C-23 comply with our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
First, some are worried about US customs officers being empowered to conduct searches. It is important to note that these officials already have the power to conduct frisks. Of course, this can only occur when the official has reasonable grounds to believe the person is hiding something that poses a danger. This standard for reasonableness is even higher in those rare occasions where there is a need for a search requiring the removal of clothing. Currently, the law obligates U.S. officers to request a Canadian counterpart to conduct the search. This, too, remains the same under Bill C-23.
The only difference is that under C-23 a US officer is empowered to conduct this kind of search if there is no Canadian officer available. The Department of Public Safety will ensure that this will only happen under extremely rare occasions and when it does US officials must follow all Canadian laws and procedures.
Theres is no provision in C-23 to create new rules empowering US officials to arrest or charge people for crimes within Canada. US Customs officials must, as is the case now, detain and turn over anyone suspected of committing a crime to Canadian officials who make decisions about laying criminal charges on Canadian soil.
I have heard from constituents about concerns over new procedures for interviews and those who decide to walk away from the pre-clearance area. Currently, if someone is being interviewed by an official in the pre-clearance area, a person can terminate the interview and walk away at any time. For example, if one is asked about carrying fruits and vegetables, that person can simply decide not to enter the US that day and walk away.
Under C-23 an individual can still walk away. However, the person who wishes to walk away may be asked to identify themselves and give a reason for walking away. This is to mitigate the risk of individuals seeking to probe pre-clearance sites for weaknesses along the border before leaving undetected. Much like a store clerk may ask for a piece ID and a reason for returning a new TV, we are trying to ensure our processes are not being manipulated by those with illicit intent.
Finally, it is vitally important to understand that at all pre-clearance sites in Canada, US officers must exercise their duties in accordance with Canadian law, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Bill of Rights and the Canadian Human Rights Act. Ports of Entry within the United States have none of these safeguards, which is another advantage of pre-clearance for Canadians. This means that any US officer who conducts searches must have a justification that meets the test for reasonableness under section 8 the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and other Canadian law. This also means that US border officers cannot discriminate in violation of the Canadian Human Rights Act or the Charter. Canadian law applies presently and will continue to apply should Bill C-23 pass.
Defending civil rights is one of the reasons I entered politics. I believe strongly in the constitutional and legal protections that we are entitled to as Canadians. The freedom to conduct business and to travel across one of the most important borders to Canadians is also a freedom worth protecting and cooperation with our US counterparts enables us to facilitate travel to and from the US for Canadians. The protections of our rights and freedoms remain intact and in force under this bill and they will be strictly enforced by our officials, our courts and our government.