In what amounted to a summit on the looming US passport requirement, the recent Pacific NorthWest Economic Region conference offered little but frustration for Yukon politicians.
With 17 months remaining before tough new laws are adopted, US officials can’t say what documents will be required to enter the US.
Alternatives to passports have been discussed and nothing in the law specifies passports, but no alternative has been finalized.
The stalling is hurting trade and increasing frustration, said Tourism and Culture Minister Elaine Taylor.
“There is a lot of confusion out there. I, myself, have a hard time trying to keep up with the changes,” said Taylor, in a phone interview from Edmonton on Wednesday.
“We’re all still very much in the dark on both sides of the border,” added Economic Development Minister Jim Kenyon, who also attended the meeting.
US Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff was invited to speak at the 16th annual PNWER meeting in Edmonton.
Stockwell Day, Canada’s Public Safety minister, also decided to attend as a result.
Canada’s ambassador to the US, Michael Wilson, the American ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins, and US Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman, as well as US senators, congressmen and their staff were also there.
The meeting presented an ideal opportunity for Taylor and Kenyon to pick officials’ brains and present the Yukon’s concerns about the debacle.
Taylor and Kenyon spoke with both Chertoff and Day.
Chertoff is “committed” to an alternative to a passport for Canadians wishing to enter the US, said Kenyon.
The problem is that the US is still working out what that alternative could be, he explained.
Day told the conference that “progress has been made,” on security document alternatives, but he gave no concrete details, added Kenyon.
The Yukon joined 29 other organizations from Canada and the US in the Passport Coalition.
It recommended US Homeland Security give funding for a communications campaign to inform citizens of the new laws.
The Yukon hasn’t set aside money to communicate the new law to citizens, said Taylor.
But any campaign about the new law will have to wait until someone knows what it is, she said.
“It’s really hard to communicate when you’re not even sure what the requirements are.”
What is certain is that a law requiring improved identification documents is coming in 2008.
“It was pretty clear from US secretary Chertoff that the passport initiative is not going away,” she said.
“They are sticking with the timelines. That means all individuals entering or re-entering the United States (after 2008) will require some form of identification.
“We are not exactly sure what those requirements are, and that is part of our frustration.”
In the mad rush to create a security barrier around the US after 9/11, the 9/11 Commission recommended new laws to require all visitors to the US hold better identification documents.
While the US has faced huge pressure from Canada and other countries to reconsider requiring passports, officials have their hands tied, explained Kenyon.
“It is a law that was passed by US Congress,” he said. “As much as we speak against it, the reality is only the US Congress can change that.”
The pass card alternative would be cheaper and easier to obtain, said Taylor.
“But it would be another card to obtain,” she said.
The Yukon could suffer because much of our trade requires border crossing, said Kenyon.
Americans could also avoid coming to Canada as a result, he added.
Officials were asked if First Nations citizens could be exempt from the new laws, as they have been in the past.
Day is looking into the matter, said Taylor.
“The more we wait for the rules and regulations surrounding these alternative cards, the more we’re going to have to communicate in the small time frame left,” she said.
“Nothing in that law prescribes passport. It’s about finding those alternatives,” said Kenyon.
Kenyon will take over as president of PNWR for a one-year term, at a ceremony tonight.