Former ambassador to the U.S. Michael Kergin recently issued this discouraging assessment on the state of what used to be the world's longest undefended border. While Europe and Asia are breaking down barriers to travel and commerce, he wrote, "Canada and the U.S. appear to be moving in a direction opposite to that of the rest of the world: we are tightening our border."
The consequences, he warned, were severe: increased costs, eroding productivity and degenerating trust in what remains the largest free trade area in the world.
The closing of the United States' northern border began, ironically, in Toronto. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Chuck Winwood, the acting commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service, was visiting Canada's largest city on what was supposed to have been his first holiday in nearly two years.
Winwood, a 30-year customs veteran who had served in almost every senior post in the agency, understood better than anyone the consequences of what he was about to do.
At 10 that morning, just as the south tower of the World Trade Center in New York was collapsing into rubble, he issued an unprecedented order. Picking up the phone to Washington, he directed his agents and inspectors at all the country's borders to go to a level 1 alert, the highest short of a complete shutdown.
The order required customs officers at every border entry station to end their long practice of waving through most cars and trucks with a smile and a nod.