Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Canada's nasty reputation

CBC news
October 3, 2007

Charles Schumer is the senior U.S. senator from New York, and one of the most accomplished self-promoters in Washington, which says a great deal about his powers of self-promotion. He's a busy fellow.

When he showed up last week at a televised Senate committee hearing, he wasn't interested in the expert witnesses testifying about security along the Canada-U.S. border. Schumer sat down just long enough to get some face time on the live cameras and to put some remarks on the record.

"It's extremely troubling, extremely troubling," he said. "We have seen, crossing the Buffalo border on occasion, terrorists …"

Congress, said Schumer, must do something about it. His fellow senators nodded gravely, and Senator Max Baucus from Montana started talking about how easy it might be for someone in Canada to build a dirty bomb. Schumer hurried off.

In the audience, a Canadian official jotted down the remark, which was examined from all angles later at the Canadian embassy just down the road from the Capitol.

No one had the faintest idea what Schumer was talking about. Nor did anyone in the Canadian Consulate General in Buffalo, which was quickly brought into the inquiry. Schumer himself hadn't provided any details.

It turned out Schumer didn't know what he was talking about either. After repeated calls to his office, one of his press secretaries told CBC "perhaps the senator misspoke."

Who's toughest?

Perhaps. Or perhaps, as Canadian Senator Jerry Grafstein puts it, there's an election coming in the United States, and "it's above the radar screen because the Democrats are trying to demonstrate they're tougher on terrorists than the Republicans," and don't particularly care who they sideswipe in the process.

Whatever the reason, politics loves a myth, and the myth about Canada that's lodged in the heads of some of America's most powerful politicians is as resistant to truth as a virus is to antibiotics.

According to Canadian officials who track such things, six Washington lawmakers have so far this year stated that Sept. 11 hijackers entered the United States through Canada.

For the record: the hijackers all entered the U.S. directly, most of them on visas granted by the American government, presumably after security checks by the vigilant security services of the U.S. Most of them were also citizens of another close U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia.

But that didn't matter to high officials like Utah Senator Bob Bennett, who made the Sept. 11-hijackers-from-Canada accusation to some visiting Canadian MPs earlier this year.

Or to Democrat Congressman Henry Cuellar of Texas, who said this to a House subcommittee last July: "If you want to look at the 9/11 terrorists, they didn't come from the southern border. They came from the northern part of the border."

Cuellar's fellow Texan, Congressman Al Green, couched it as a broad hint last month. "Much is said about the southern border, but much also should be said about the northern border. The 9/11 hijackers did not come through the southern border…" (Green corrected himself, though not the official record, after calls from CBC).

Look north

Politicians in the United States reinforce the Canada-as-a-terrorist-haven myth for different reasons, says one Canadian official who watches the issue — and the reasons usually have nothing to do with Canada.

Some Republicans "want to stimulate constant fear," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They depend on people being very scared in order to win office."

He also pointed out that politicians from southern states appear determined to divert attention from the southern border, where many millions of illegal immigrants have crossed into the United States.

"They perceive an elemental racism to the complaints about the southern border, so they are anxious to point out that white folks up north were the source of the 9/11 terrorism," the official said.

The fact that Canada co-operates eagerly with American security officials, as one of the expert witnesses Schumer ignored was trying to explain, is immaterial.

The fact that Canada, in its eagerness, has handed over (sometimes erroneous) information about its own citizens doesn't matter. The fact that Canadian authorities have actually intercepted security targets crossing the border from the U.S. with American guns makes no impression at all.

But these utterances certainly have consequences. Frank McKenna, who spent much of his time as Canadian ambassador to the United States from 2005 to 2006 chasing and dousing the Sept. 11 myth, says Canadian travellers "are paying the price right now."

"It's thickened the border," says McKenna. The longer lines at U.S. Customs, the traffic jams at international bridges in Buffalo and Detroit, the slowing of trade: "It is creating arteriosclerosis in the arteries between our countries."

Canada's Grafstein, who co-chairs a group of Canadian MPs and senators (the Canada-U.S. Interparliamentary Group) that pursues private discussions with their American counterparts, says the "haven for terrorists" myth occupies most of the meetings.

"It's like hitting a stone with water," he says. "I can't deal with the irrationality."

Of course, Grafstein has been in politics for most of his adult life. He probably should have learned about irrationality by now.