OTTAWA – Saying "America treasures its relationship with Canada," Secretary of State Colin Powell promised Thursday that the United States would strive to keep Canadian citizens from being hassled or singled out when they cross the border.
Powell flew here for a luncheon meeting with Foreign Minister Bill Graham and other Canadian officials that he said dealt with Iraq "in considerable detail." The meeting also was intended as a balm on sore feelings in Canada over border security measures implemented by its powerful next-door neighbor.
Canada has been unhappy with the U.S. National Security Entry Exit Registration System, which authorizes taking fingerprints and photographs of people born or holding citizenship in five countries the United States says sponsor terrorism: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria.
Canadian officials consider the policy discriminatory. The government issued a travel advisory warning people from those five countries to avoid going into the United States, but rescinded it when U.S. officials promised that Canadian citizens would not get special scrutiny based on their country of birth.
"I'm very pleased we worked that out," Graham said. "The United States has been very responsive on that."
Powell said both countries are working to simplify the system. He reminded Canadians that the tighter border restrictions "are not directed at Canada" but are meant to extend greater protection to the American people.
"We're doing everything we can so that we respect Canadian citizenship, and they're not being profiled or anything," he said.
Powell and Graham also discussed Iraq and international efforts to ensure that Saddam Hussein complies with U.N. weapons inspections. Powell said Iraq's reactions to enforcement of no-fly zones would be looked at "with great seriousness," and that Iraq must understand the threat of military action "to disarm them, to change the regime," is real.
"The only thing the Iraqis respond to is pressure," Powell said. "We don't want there to be any confusion that (Saddam) is somehow being given slack, or he gets a couple of free passes before serious consequences are on the table."
Border security worries were heightened this fall when two Canadians became ensnared in the new U.S. processes.
One, Maher Arar of Montreal, was detained Sept. 26 when he changed planes at John F. Kennedy airport in New York while returning home from Tunisia. Arar holds dual Canadian-Syrian citizenship and was deported to Syria; Canadian officials said he should have been sent to Canada.
The other, Michel Jalbert, 32, of Quebec, was arrested Oct. 11 when he journeyed into Maine to buy gas at a station a few yards from the border. An American policeman spotted a hunting rifle in Jalbert's vehicle, and a background check found Jalbert had been convicted 13 years ago of vandalism and possessing stolen property.
Jalbert was arrested and charged with entering the United States illegally. If convicted, he faces six months in jail.
Powell called Jalbert's case "an unfortunate incident," and said U.S. immigration officials are expediting his case. He said Canadian citizens who frequently traverse the border for gasoline or other ordinary errands should not worry that they will receive the same treatment.
"I don't expect it to be a problem in the future, nor a pattern," Powell said.