Post-9-11 Anxiety Increases Distrust: More American Waivers Needed

On 11 September 2001, when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were subjected to the attack of terrorists who flew hijacked commercial aircraft kamikaze-style into them, Canada quickly showed solidarity with the United States. This ranged from diverting aircraft to Canadian airports such as Toronto International and Gander, Newfoundland to outpourings of condolences. But today, almost ten years after the attacks, Canada and the US would seem to be more distant from each other in some respects. It is as if “9-11” has caused the rift between the two neighbouring countries to increase beyond their traditional rivalry into a more substantial estrangement. Let us look at the ways in which this has been manifested.

Opposing political viewpoints

When “9-11” sparked the American invasion of Afghanistan, Canada and many other countries showed solidarity by contributing troops to the war. But when US president George W. Bush wanted to extend the “war on terror” to Iraq, Canada initially refused to participate in this new theatre of war unless supported by the United Nations. This not only angered Bush, whose slogan was “you’re either for us or against us”; it re-kindled wounds from the time of the Vietnam War, when many Americans fled to Canada in order to avoid conscription and service in Vietnam, while Canada was accused by some Americans of cowardice for not participating in the conflict as actively as the United States.

In fact, some American soldiers, dismayed by what they see as a brutal and unjust war in Iraq, have deserted and tried to receive asylum in Canada. So far, however, the Canadian government, probably afraid of diplomatic difficulties, has held off formally permitting the deserters to stay, as opposed to the draft dodgers that were welcomed with open arms in the Vietnam era.

Tighter border security

The US-Canada boundary is known as the world’s longest undefended border. Undefended, perhaps, but not unguarded. It used to be one of the easiest borders in the world to cross, particularly in the case of American border guards admitting Canadians and vice versa. The terrorist attacks have long put an end to this relaxed climate; travellers’ documents are now much more likely to be meticulously checked. Moreover, both American and Canadian border officials subject travellers’ documents to criminal background checks against electronic information from police files. It is illegal for a foreigner who has ever been convicted of a criminal offence to travel to the US without an American waiver. An American criminal waiver (officially, a waiver of inadmissibility) is a visa-like document issued to foreigners by the Department of Homeland Security and allows a convicted foreigner to travel to the US for a period of one to five years. If a convicted Canadian attempts to cross the border without an American waiver, they will be deported and may be prosecuted. On its side, Canada also screens travellers, deporting those with a criminal past, unless they acquire “rehabilitation”, either by means of an official document that is the Canadian equivalent of an American waiver or by allowing a certain period of time to pass since the crime was committed or the sentence served, depending on the offence.

Nor is crossing the border across open spaces safe; although there are not many border guards patrolling the Canada-US border (unlike the US-Mexico border), there are motion detectors along the border that can spot a person crossing at points other than an official point of entry, alerting officials.

Where the enemy comes from

Nonetheless, Canadians and Americans continue to visit each others’ countries, to fraternize, and even find work on the other side of the border. One of the reasons for the heightened alert does not pertain so much to home-grown Canadians and Americans as to the risk of terrorist infiltration. For there is the risk that some foreigners with the wrong mindset will spend some time in one country (as some of the 9-11 hijackers were claimed to have done, allegedly learning to fly in Canada and then perpetrating their attacks in the US) and then move to the other to commit their crimes. Both countries wish to prevent this, but doing so comes at a price – heightened cross-border vigilance and, to some extent, a reduced sense of trust.

Ned Lecic lives and works in Toronto. He is a writer for a Canadian pardons agency.