Monterrey, Mexico Prime Minister Paul Martin is expected to announce today that Canada and the United States have agreed on new rules aimed to ensure that the Maher Arar scandal is never repeated.
Government sources said last night that the White House has formally pledged to inform Canadian authorities immediately whenever a Canadian national is detained in the United States on security grounds.
The pact, which one official said last night it was "99 per cent done," is sure to be described by the Martin government as a critical step forward in bilateral relations and proof that the Prime Minister's effort to improve ties is already paying dividends.
"From our perspective, it is almost shocking that they agreed to this," said a Canadian official, who noted that steps to restrict U.S. national security efforts in the post-Sept. 11 environment have generally been rejected by Washington.
"All you will get is assurance that they will consult with you. ..... But it's hard to imagine that [the Arar case] would happen again."
The agreement is expected to be made public after Mr. Martin and U.S. President George W. Bush hold their first meeting today; a 45-minute discussion over breakfast at the Summit of the Americas.
Mr. Arar, who holds dual Canadian-Syrian citizenship, was detained as a suspected terrorist at New York's JFK Airport in September of 2002. Although never charged, he was deported to Syria a month later without the knowledge of Canadian officials. He spent 10 months in solitary confinement in the Middle Eastern country and said he was tortured before being released to return his family in Ottawa three months ago.
The pact, sources say, doesn't include a promise by the United States never to deport to third countries Canadians suspected of being security risks. But the crux of the Arar matter, Canadian officials have emphasized, is that Ottawa had no chance to object formally to his deportation and demand that he be returned to Canada instead.
Ottawa now has a formal declaration that the U.S. government will keep Canada in the loop. The pact includes a specific point of contact in Canada: likely the senior bureaucrat in Ottawa responsible for consular affairs.
It is extremely unlikely that the United States would deport a Canadian national abroad against Canada's wishes, officials said, whether those were expressed publicly or privately. There may be exceptional circumstances when Canada countenanced a deportation of this sort, but it almost inevitably would require the approval of both governments before this extreme step was carried out again, they added.
Since taking office on Dec. 12, Mr. Martin has said it is a government priority to negotiate a protocol of this sort with Washington. Some Canadian officials have been blunter still; suggesting that closer Canada-U.S. co-ordination toward defending the continent against the threat of terrorism depends on such a pact.
As recently as late last week, Canadian and U.S. officials remained some distance apart. The negotiations were made more difficult because both sides weren't of one mind. The U.S. government in particular has been split between those in the intelligence community and the Department of Homeland Security who fear that written rules with Canada would unduly handcuff them, and those who felt that a diplomatic compromise with Ottawa is in the United States's clear interest.
Government officials say a pact came together during the past three days, as this morning's meeting between Mr. Bush and Mr. Martin drew near.
Mr. Martin told reporters yesterday that Canada-U.S. relations have been on the upswing since he took office and that he hopes to develop a good rapport with Mr. Bush. Relationships based on mutual understanding, he said, inevitably pay greater dividends whether in politics or in everyday life. "The tone has changed," he said.
But Mr. Martin also took pains to emphasize that his objective is to have a good working relationship with Mr. Bush, rather than one based primarily on friendship. "Canadians expect their Prime Minister to defend their interests," he said, adding that it is also important to have strong links among cabinet ministers, pointing to Foreign Minister Bill Graham, who speaks regularly with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Mr. Martin said that he hopes to make progress today on the key files that rile relations: the mad-cow crisis; the softwood lumber dispute; the fight over access to reconstruction contracts in Iraq; and the Arar matter, which he has described in simple terms as "respecting the Canadian passport."
But Mr. Martin also suggested that at least some of those issues will require prolonged efforts to resolve, since they involve the U.S. Congress as well as the White House. "On some of these files, we're approaching them in more constructive ways." The bilateral meeting has received little notice in the U.S. media, which has concentrated on other discussions Mr. Bush will have during his 24-hour visit to Monterrey for the fourth summit of leaders of the Western Hemisphere. Mr. Bush met with Mexican President Vicente Fox yesterday afternoon.