Masse in the House on WHTI

From Hansard

Mr. Brian Masse (Windsor West, NDP): Mr. Speaker, this is the first time I have had a chance to address the House with yourself in the Chair. I would like to congratulate you on your appointment. I look forward to participating in debate in the House of Commons over the years and to your interventions.

I am rising today again on a border issue that affects not only my constituency of Windsor West but also constituencies across this country. The issue I am rising on is called the western hemisphere travel initiative. This is actually the first late show debate that we are having in the House of Commons in this session and my constituents will not be surprised that I am using this opportunity to talk about the border issue once again. I hope to give Canadians a broader perspective of what is going to happen with the WHTI.

The WHTI involves the implementation of passport requirements or another document for U.S. citizens to get into and out of their country. The actual document requirement has not been finalized yet. Canadians are going to require a passport as well in order to get into and out of the United States. This will be a big problem because it will affect our tourism and trade industries.

The question I asked the Prime Minister related to the abandonment of the position of the Canadian Parliament on this issue. We had come to a resolution during the last Parliament and I would like to revisit the history of this issue.

Days after the actual implementation was announced by the Homeland Security Department, I immediately wrote the previous Liberal government calling for action. We are not only going to suffer consequences to our tourism industry, but we will also suffer socially and culturally. Our borders will be clogged and individuals will no longer travel between our two great nations for varying types of reasons, whether for pleasure or for work. This is critical because our relationship with the United States will erode.

We put a lot of pressure on the Liberal government, and I will give the Conservative Party some credit with regard to that pressure. A take note debate was held in the House and the present Minister of Veterans Affairs pressed this issue as well. We came up with a position that was adopted by the House and we submitted our objection to the WHTI.

That take note debate was important because it outlined our position on why we were opposing the WHTI. It also laid down the framework of where we were going in the future. When the Prime Minister went to Cancun to meet with President Bush and President Fox, he immediately capitulated the position that had been adopted here in the House by agreeing that we would have to endorse this without any type of plan in place.

I specifically asked why we were abandoning the position that was championed with the Conservatives, the New Democratic Party and the Bloc to get the Liberal government at the time to make a submission. That four page submission was the starting point of a formal argument about the effects of the WHTI, the implementation of passports, and the consequences to our national economy. Four independent studies have confirmed the grave consequences.

The Prime Minister's position was rather puzzling because of the champion work that the current veterans minister had done on this file. It seemed like a capitulation that was not going to be in the best interests of Canadians. At that time I asked the Prime Minister to present a specific plan as to what the government was going to do.

Mr. Dave MacKenzie (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety, CPC): Mr. Speaker, like those who have gone before me, I would like to congratulate you on your new role. Obviously, it means that you will not be sitting on all those committees with the rest of us.

I rise in response to the question put to the House by my hon. colleague, the member for Windsor West, regarding the western hemisphere travel initiative of United States.

Canada recognizes and shares the U.S. security concerns, which the western hemisphere travel initiative is attempting to address through improved security of documentation. At the same time, we have questions and concerns about whether the initiative, as proposed, fully serves the interests of both our countries, particularly in light of what we know about the negative impacts on trade, tourism and border communities. Such concerns have been raised on a number of occasions with our American counterparts, including President Bush, Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff and Secretary of State Rice. I would also note that these issues have also been brought forward by a number of representatives in the U.S. Congress and Senate.

That being said, the western hemisphere travel initiative is a law passed by a majority in the U.S. Congress and President Bush has clearly stated that he will abide by it. Therefore, it is incumbent upon this government to take the necessary and appropriate steps in preparation to meet these deadlines. This includes collaborative work between the most senior officials in both Canada and the U.S. to explore alternative documents other than the passport and the United States pass card for securing efficient cross-border travel.

The Minister of Public Safety recently had a series of meetings in Washington with Secretary Chertoff and other senior U.S. officials, and good progress was made on several fronts. In particular, it was clarified that the U.S. remains open to the idea of alternative documents, other than the proposed passport or pass card, for the purposes of cross-border travel. This is important as we continue to address with our American counterparts the need for affordable and easy to obtain documentation that meets the security requirements under the western hemisphere travel initiative.

I am pleased to report that the Minister of Public Safety and Secretary Chertoff were in full agreement that wherever possible, our two countries should look for opportunities to enhance the flow of trade and travel across the border, and we will continue to examine options to make this work. Secretary Chertoff will be coming to Ottawa in late May or early June so we can jointly assess our progress on this critical issue under the western hemisphere travel initiative.

While this joint Canada-U.S. work moves forward, we at the same time remind Canadian citizens who may wish to travel to the United States after January 1, 2007, that they will be able, as always, to use their Canadian passports. What is of critical importance to both countries is how best to implement a meaningful solution which ensures that our borders are open for legitimate trade and travel and closed to terrorists, drug dealers and smugglers.

Mr. Brian Masse: Mr. Speaker, first, that does not answer the question of why the Prime Minister abandoned the position of Parliament, which called for specific action. Second, where is the plan?

We have a series of ministers who have been out freelancing a different position on this matter, which is giving a confusing message, not only to the general public but also to the American representatives who are coming for various meetings. I would like to have a specific strategy.

The Prime Minister has a responsibility. I would suggest that a national tourism strategy will be necessary. I would like to see the government table a plan on how to deal with the WHTI specifically. We can take a number of different measures, whether it is a request for the actual implementation date to be developed through a plan of education and process so when individuals come to the Canadian border, they are given a package with the deadline date of 2008 to enroll in a new program. Then we do not have the confusion and we settle those things.

That is critical because we are going to witness--

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Andrew Scheer): The hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety.

Mr. Dave MacKenzie: Mr. Speaker, clearly the government is committed to collaborating with its U.S. neighbours to realize the security benefits intended by the western hemisphere travel initiative, while ensuring that our shared border remains open to legitimate trade and travel.

This issue has been a top priority at the most senior level meetings between our two countries, including the recent visit to Washington by the Minister of Public Safety. Senior officials from the White House, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department were in attendance and we will continue these fruitful discussions in the near future, including a visit from Secretary Chertoff in May or June.

What is already clear from meetings held thus far is that both countries are committed to the idea that we cannot have an efficient free flow of goods without security at our shared border. This government is taking the necessary action to move forward with a workable and achievable plan under a tight timeframe.