Border issues on the agenda on U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first visit to Canada

OTTAWA—U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly showcased Thursday two countries in lockstep on the pressing global issues of the day, but still stumbling when it comes to addressing issues at the Canada-U.S. border.

Blinken was in Ottawa for his first in-person state visit, though he and Joly have been meeting on the sidelines of global summits repeatedly over the last year and also directly in Washington, D.C. as the Liberal government has sought to strengthen ties with the Biden administration.

On Thursday, the duo highlighted the two countries’ shared points of view on needing to do more to support Ukraine, find a way to restore stability to Haiti and address shared security threats in the Arctic.

Joly’s efforts to get a new Indo-Pacific strategy for Canada out the door — she’s been working on it for a year — also got a boost.

The U.S. has been waiting for Canada to unveil a framework for its engagement in the region, with U.S. Ambassador David Cohen telling his nomination hearing last fall part of his job would be to engage with Canada to help develop the policy.

Joly announced Thursday that Canada and the U.S. will now set up a specific “Canada-U.S. strategic dialogue” to further align the two countries’ approaches to the Indo-Pacific — which includes China, Japan, South Korea and India — and further economic co-operation in the region.

“We both believe in deepening our diplomatic and economic ties as well as strengthening the resiliency of our global supply chain,” Joly said.

She said the U.S. will also back Canada’s desire to join the newly formed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, the latest multilateral group spooled up by regional powers seeking greater collaboration as a way to thwart Chinese influence.

The group was put together in May and currently consists of Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.

That Canada was left out of the initial round caused some hand-wringing, with critics of the Liberals’ approach to the region arguing it was yet another example of Canada being left on the sidelines of multilateral efforts between Pacific countries.

But while the deepening of efforts to work together on global issues was clear, how two pressing domestic irritants will get solved was less obvious.

Among the existing tensions in the Canada-U.S. relationship is the situation at what’s known as Roxham Road, an unofficial border crossing in Quebec where so far this year 27,000 people have crossed into Canada to seek asylum.

They do it that way because if they cross at formal border spots, they can’t request refugee status due to the Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S.

The crossings have caused political headaches for years, and the pace and rate of arrivals is also straining the refugee determination process and settlement services.

A solution would be to amend the Safe Third Country Agreement to erase the loopholes — Joly said she did bring the subject up with Blinken, and there are talks underway. The Liberals have been saying that for several years.

But what’s a political migraine for the Liberals here is less than even a minor headache for the Americans; their border officers apprehended 2.3 million people in the last fiscal year at the southern border.

The migrant crisis in America fuels an intense debate over immigration policy in the U.S., elements of which have dominated the current midterm election cycle, especially in border states as the U.S. government tries to find a way to stop the flow of people.

So while the U.S. is listening to Canada’s concerns about the border, Blinken said, it has to be seen in a more global context.

He cited the current historic patterns of migration and the need for better management of the issues driving it — including by migrants’ home countries.

“There needs to be a greater sense of shared responsibility for dealing with migration,” he said.

Meanwhile, when it comes to formal travel back and forth, Canada and the U.S. are also grappling with another problem — the status of the Nexus program, which allows pre-screened travellers to cross the border faster.

The two countries aren’t currently seeing eye to eye on how the program should run, leading to charges from the Canadian side that Americans are “holding it hostage” by closing their processing offices in Canada.

That’s led to lengthy backlogs in applications and criticism that economic travel is being delayed as a result.

The subject was discussed during their talks, both Blinken and Joly said, and both sides are committed to finding a solution. When, how and where, however, wasn’t offered up.

“We both feel strongly that the most powerful bond we have is in the ability of Canadians and Americans alike to move back and forth to our respective countries,” Blinken said.

“It’s what connects us every single day.”

On Friday, Blinken will travel with Joly — a three-term Quebec Liberal MP — to Montreal, where the duo will tour a lithium battery recycling plant and visit the Jean Talon Market.


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