[Q&A] Ten years later, 9/11 continues to shape North American trade and security policy.
The Mark – The People and Ideas Behind the Headlines.
September 10, 2011
As part of The Mark’s coverage of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we interviewed former Canadian minister of transportation David Collenette. It was under Collenette’s direction that the skies over Canada and the Canadian-administered portion of the Atlantic Ocean were closed to all commercial and private air traffic on Sept. 11, 2001. On that day, 226 jets containing nearly 33,000 people landed at Canadian airports, mainly in the less-populated areas of the East Coast. Beyond co-ordinating this effort, Collenette also worked closely with the United States to revise Canadian transportation security policies and regulations in the days, weeks, and months following the attack.
Ten years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, what stands out most in your memory of that day?
Apart from the obvious – the vision of the towers coming down – what really sticks out in my mind is how we reacted so quickly, how we got it right and how everyone pulled together. There was no fighting – there was no time for playing games, at either the federal or the provincial level. The provinces accepted that [the people aboard planes] needed to land, and met their responsibilities at the local level. Canadians all pulled together. I look back, and I’m proud that the federal government, with full co-operation, got things right. It was an example of government at its best. There’s a lot of cynicism with respect to government and politicians, but I think we demonstrated that there was a high professionalism right through the public service on that day.
What are your views on the impact that 9/11 had more broadly on trade and border security?
On the day of the attacks, most of the preoccupation was on the aviation side. Believe it or not, activity at the ports continued. Boats docked, containers were loaded and unloaded, and trains passed through with their cargo into the United States. It was a normal day on rail, and on the maritime front. But, of course, the road border was really shut down, and trucks were stopped from crossing, so it became a massive problem for industry.
While the first day was busy, the next six to eight months were just as hectic with all the regulatory issues we had to deal with. Those issues are still being played out. The security concerns of the U.S. are still there, and the trading concerns of the Canadian companies and their American counterparts are still there. That’s why the current government is in talks with the U.S. administration to improve the flow of goods at the border and make changes that are required to ensure that key trade continues and any bureaucratic impediments are eliminated.
Do you think the perception of a “porous Canadian border” letting terrorists into the U.S. is impacting the ongoing security discussions between our two countries?
When you’ve had Hilary Clinton and Janet Napolitano from the U.S. department of homeland security actually revisit this prejudice against Canada in a public way – although they have both backed off – it’s obvious that this perception is still a problem. The idea that our borders and immigration policy had something to do with the terrorist threat is something that was echoed very quickly by leading people in Congress.
However, except for the case of Ahmed Ressam, who was caught at the border in Washington, there have been no incidents of terrorists going into the U.S. through Canada. And the hijackers on 9/11 were all legally in the United States. But the perception exists that there’s this big porous border on the Canadian side. And that is simply not true.