Ambassador to U.S. is ‘mystified’ by privacy concerns around Canadian border pre-clearance bill

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The Canada Customs and Immigration area at Vancouver International Airport.

OTTAWA — Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. has dismissed civil liberties concerns raised around a border pre-clearance bill, arguing that pre-cleared travellers get more rights than they would have in dealing with U.S. customs on the American side of the border.

Ambassador David McNaughton’s remarks to a Senate committee Monday came in stark contrast to earlier testimony from immigration experts, civil liberties groups and Canada’s privacy commissioner, all of whom objected to parts of the bill they said gives U.S. border guards too much power on Canadian soil, and no effective recourse if the searches violate Canadian law.

“I don’t quite understand, frankly, some of these concerns,” McNaughton said.

“The reality is, you’ve decided you’re going to go to the United States of America … There’s actually no difference in terms of what they’re going to have to face when they go through customs. They have some additional protection when we do it here in Canada, and we have a heck of a lot more convenience. So I’m mystified, frankly.”

The bill has been criticized for authorizing U.S. guards to question anyone withdrawing from a pre-clearance area about their identity and their reasons for leaving (under current rules, someone can leave without answering questions). It also authorizes U.S. guards to conduct a strip-search of a traveller if Canadian border guards are either not available to do it or decline to do so.

But MPs and senators are effectively limited in what amendments they can pass, as the bill implements a 2015 border agreement signed by then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper and then-President Barack Obama. Changing the bill would mean renegotiating the agreement, McNaughton said.

Once the bill is passed, Canada plans to add airport pre-clearance in Quebec City and at Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport, in addition to the eight Canadian airports that already have it.

In a testy exchange, Sen. Marilou McPhedran challenged McNaughton’s dismissal of the concerns, given his own status.

“You have a special passport, a diplomatic passport,” she said. “You are a handsome white male of a certain age wearing a very nice suit. What would happen, do you think, would it be the same experience for someone with a different skin colour than yours, someone who didn’t have a special passport, someone who maybe wasn’t wearing a nice suit?”

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