WASHINGTON - Canada-U.S. border co-operation under the much-ballyhooed Beyond the Border initiatives will not be derailed by the brawl that's erupted between Canadians and Americans on the 10-member board that oversees the Peace Bridge, Gary Doer said Sunday.
"We didn't do (Beyond the Border) to drive it into the ditch on the Peace Bridge," Canada's ambassador to the U.S. said Sunday in the midst of high-level discussions in New York City on the future of the critical southern Ontario border crossing with his American counterpart, David Jacobson, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and John Prato, Canada's counsul general.
"It's the direction of the prime minister and the president .... Two federal governments want Beyond the Border to improve trade and reduce congestion."
The four met for almost six hours on Saturday, poring over the issues that have caused lengthy delays in efforts to expand and modernize the Peace Bridge, which links Buffalo, N.Y. and Fort Erie, Ont. They were continuing informal discussions on Sunday in the hopes of sealing a deal that could result in as much as US$180 million in construction at the bridge over the next few years.
The hands-on involvement of the top envoys is an indication of just how closely both the Canadian and U.S. governments are watching the discord on the Peace Bridge Authority, particularly in the wake of Beyond the Border, the landmark pact on border co-operation signed with much fanfare between Canada and the U.S. two years ago.
"The ambassador and I keep in close touch," Doer said of his relationship with Jacobson, who is leaving his post in Ottawa next month. "We don't waste any time; if we have to get together, we get together .... we don't send diplomatic notes in carrier pigeons back and forth between Washington and Ottawa."
Cuomo's public comments following Saturday's meeting, meantime, suggest that a recent New York assembly bill to dissolve the 80-year-old authority isn't going anywhere. Canada has already obtained a legal opinion on the bill from a Buffalo law firm that determined the New York legislators have no power to disband it.
When Cuomo was asked if he intended to sign the bill into law, he dodged the question, saying instead he was focused on hammering out an agreement.
"The track we are on now is to come up with an agreement that resolves the issues," he said. "We also have to do it in consultation with the members of the board of the Peace Bridge Authority, who have a legal responsibility and have been working on these issues for a long time. I believe we’re going to come to a mutually acceptable agreement, because we have the same goals.”
He added he wants "Canada to know they have a fully engaged partner on the New York side – which, I think, for some years past, they haven't had."
In an era of supposedly harmonious Canada-U.S. border relations, however, a startling melee has erupted in recent months on the Peace Bridge Authority, made up of five Canadians and five Americans. The war of words has included angry demands for ousters, bitter name-calling and public trash-talking, including one instance in which a Canadian on the board referred to a Cuomo ally as his "concubine."
In particular, Canadians on the authority have been outraged by American accusations that Canada has deliberately dragged its feet in favour of developing the Fort Erie, Ont., side of the crossing at the expense of the U.S. side. In fact, Doer has said many of the biggest delays in modernizing the Peace Bridge have been due to American authorities and differing environmental regulations on each side of the border.
Doer said the Saturday meeting steered clear of delving into the tense relations on the board, which convenes on Friday in Fort Erie, Ont., for the first time in weeks.
"It was not a meeting to deal with emotion," he said, adding it didn't get "bogged down" in finger-pointing about who's said what on the Peace Bridge Authority.
"We actually have everything on the table. We're working on a bigger road map, so to speak, for the bridge. We're working on it as we speak, and we've made a lot of progress .... I think this is the first time we have taken a look at where we are and how it happened."
Doer added it's hardly the first time there have been difficulties between the U.S. and Canada over border crossings, pointing, in particular, to the presidential permit that was required to get a new Detroit-Windsor bridge approved.
"This is not our first time at the bridge rodeo," he said.