Beyond the Border

Just as we were turning our thoughts to the December holidays last year, Canadians and Americans might not have noticed the announcement that our two governments had firmed up their plans to create “a perimeter approach to border security”.


Among other things, Harper and Obama have agreed to increase the cross-border flow of information (ie national security and law-enforcement objectives are blurring). They will jointly cooperate to “push out the border” to screen cargo and travellers before they even land in Canada or the United States (ie. to transfer risk to other countries).  They will share research on how people become violent radicals . They will examine which laws need to be changed to allow for deeper cooperation.


Canada will mirror U.S. measures to screen travellers (ie. No-fly procedures and lists will become increasingly aligned) and will begin sharing travellers’ biographic information as well as biometric information (ie. No awareness of the dangers of racial profiling. No commitment to modernize privacy legislation.). The two governments will “broaden asylum cooperation” (ie. refugee policy) and will coordinate entry and exit information systems (ie. give U.S. security forces full information on the movement of people through Canada). They will expand trusted trader and trusted traveller programs and the use of background checks and biometric markers (ie. encourage voluntary registration and increase suspicion of those who are not “trusted”).


They have also agreed to develop “integrated cross-border law enforcement operations”. There will be “integrated teams” working on intelligence and criminal investigations. (ie. U.S. law enforcement officials will have powers within Canada, and not just for the “hot pursuit” of suspected criminals). There is also a detailed plan for how they intend to deal with critical infrastructure and cyber-security which involves a slew of joint, integrated and harmonized policies and procedures (Would a strike be considered a threat to critical infrastructure?).


The Beyond the Border Action Plan has enough technical language and bureaucratic phrases to make your head spin and eyes glaze over, except for the fact that it is incredibly important we understand the implications of what is in this document (I am writing a longer piece for this and will let you know when it comes out).  It’s presented rationally, coolly, and calmly and they even make commitments to measure their outcomes.


What they don’t say is very important.  They make no reference to Justice Dennis O’Connor and his Recommendations in the Arar Commission. We see no reference to an arm`s length oversight body.  There`s no indication that Canada can control or limit what the US will do with the information it receives.  As this is an executive-level initiative, there is no commitment to report to legislatures or ask for judicial review of the human rights implications of these new cross-border surveillance efforts.


Neither is the Action Plan explicit about why Mexico has suddenly been ejected from the political definition of North America.  After losing so much of their economic stability and independence because of the NAFTA,  Mexico is facing a disastrous security crisis  in which 50,000 people have been killed since the massive militarization of the country beginning in 2006 when the War on Drugs was declared. Now, with the United States building a wall to keep out Mexican migrants, and with North American capitalists refusing to invest their surpluses and relocating their Mexican production sites to Asia, the governments of Canada and the United States would rather not face the contradictions of free trade and the abject failure of their  favourite economic model.  The security agenda in North America is not about the security of its component societies. Rather, it has everything to do with the security priorities of the capitalist economy the United States protects. The U.S. will deal with its southern border issues in a separate dynamic.


Here’s a wordle I created of the text of the Beyond the Border Action Plan.  Wordle is called a “word cloud” but it is really a survey of how often words are used in a document. This visual allowed me sit and contemplate some of the key words as I thought about the Canadian government’s public relations strategy and search for legitimacy.

Wordle: Beyond the Border Action Plan

In light of all this, and in order to clear my mind of all this detail and technospeak, I’ve been reading an exceptionally interesting book this week. It’s an over view of Critical Approaches to International Security, by K.M. Fierke (Cambridge: Polity, 2007). The chapter catching my attention this evening concerns the “Production of Danger.”  In it, Fierke discusses how we may move beyond thinking of threats as objective truths, and instead, probe more deeply to ask about the assumptions security forces make when they name something as a threat. What are the processes of naming something, and not something else?  How is the hierarchy of danger produced and how does a society come to accept it as such?


Some critical security analysts ask why, when an issue is politicized within liberal democracy, debate and discussion is to be expected, but when an issue is securitized opponents to the policy are silenced and debate is curtailed. All the rules of “normal politics” are lifted when it comes to security issues, they argue.


Other critical observers of security issues argue that modern liberal democracies are founded on the idea that there are insiders and there are outsiders.  Insiders (citizens), can expect to be protected, but outsiders (those will fewer or no citizenship rights) cannot. In this view, the very construction of security depends upon the existence of insecurity and even “normal politics” creates insecurity for some individuals and groups (such as migrants for example).


Fierke also draws our attention to the use of technologies of information by the state in its pursuit of security. In this moment, a general climate of fear is created and governments become preoccupied with the technologies needed for managing populations.  As Foucault analysed so well, people become self-regulating in the face of state authority and the pursuit of politics no longer even approximates agency, participation and engagement, but descends into the technical management of information and the disciplining of bodies.


Under these conditions, the pursuit of social justice does not register as a significant issue.

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