6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

Canada-U.S. Border Transportation Innovation in the Age of America First: Moving beyond Pre-Clearance

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Event Summary


Travel and trade across the U.S.-Canada border are staggering in volume and value: Canada is the largest passenger gateway into the United States, with tens of millions of passengers entering every year, while cross-border trade in goods was valued at over half a trillion dollars in 2016. With or without an updated NAFTA, continuing growth in cross-border passenger travel and cargo transport is expected in the coming decades. Given future immigration, trade, and terrorism concerns, the imperatives of border security and efficiency are more important than ever. Artificial intelligence, biometrics, facial recognition, and the use of digital identities could radically transform the future of cross-border transportation, but they also raise serious privacy-related and resource concerns for policymakers.

In partnership with the Vancouver International Airport and the Public Policy Forum (Ottawa), the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute hosted a one-day forum on cross-border transportation and innovation. Experts from industry, academia, and government forecasted future growth in U.S.-Canada travel and transport, analyzed threats in passenger and cargo transit, spotlighted innovations in border management, presented pilot projects and identified key issues in forging a strategic vision for the U.S.-Canada border in the twenty-first century. 


As Amb. Kenneth Merten stressed in his opening address, there is a pressing need to “facilitate legitimate trade and travel among the longest shared border in the world.” Diplomats, CEOs, public servants, and academics, including several Wilson Center scholars, proposed new solutions for the current and future problems of cross-border travel in three panels:

Canada-U.S. Air and Land Border Crossings: What are the Data Saying?

Car traffic is down, demand for trucking is up, and airports are booming. Panelists Tony Smith, Kevin Burke, Jennifer Fox, and Dr. Laurie Trautman, as well as moderator Martin Loken, identified regulatory, staffing, and technological problems based on these trends – and, as Fox noted, “how to do more with less.” Burke agreed: “Customs agencies on both sides of the border are constrained and understaffed.” Trautman discussed the relationship between the decline in car traffic and a weakening Canadian dollar, as compounded by security procedures following 9/11.

Technological Innovations in Border Management: Trusted Travelers, Biometrics, Artificial Intelligence, and Advanced Cargo Screening

By leveraging existing and emerging technology, a modern border is feasible with current know-how. A panel featuring Craig Richmond, Dr. Kathryn Friedman, Colleen Manaher, Dr. William Anderson, and Steve McHugh, alongside moderator Alan Bersin, discussed how the technology for the future of safe border management is already here. “Border lines also have to accommodate border flows,” while also “securing commerce, securing the passage of people… and a thickening and thinning” of the border in tandem, Bersin noted. Duplication of efforts is the core issue, all panel members agreed, while border crossings should become seamless, less intrusive, and more secure.

Getting to the Border of the Future: Policy, Pilots, and Pragmatism?

The future, according to a panel consisting of Alan Bersin, Solomon Wong, Lori MacDonald, Tina Namiesniowski, and John Wagner, and moderated by Ambassador Paul Frazer, is challenging but bright. They discussed how leveraging test pilots and past policy successes can lead to future successes, while complying with legislative oversight. As Wong stressed, returning to the problem of the first panel, the number of front-line cross-border officers would need to increase by a half within twenty years, “but no one in this room believes this would happen.” Automation and harmonization of data is likely the only solution left.  

In closing, Gerry Bruno, Jane Hooker, and Lynne Platt emphasized the value of a forthcoming white paper on pre-clearance. “No matter what happens with NAFTA, the border is still going to be there,” Bruno said. “[T]he longer we wait to do anything about it, the bigger the challenges we will face down the road.” Hooker agreed, noting the need to consider the “global context.” Platte added, “We need to move forward towards new and pragmatic solutions. This is not the time for cynicism.”



9:15am - Beyond Pre-Clearance Welcome

Welcome: Robert Litwak, Wilson Center Senior Vice President

Opening Address: Ambassador Kenneth Merten, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs 

9:30am - Canada-U.S. Air and Land Border Crossings: What are the Data Saying?

Moderator: Martin Loken, Minister for Political Affairs, Embassy of Canada in Washington, DC



10:45am - Technological Innovations in Border Managament: Trusted Travelers, Biometrics, Artificial Intelligence, and Advanced Cargo Screening

Moderator: Alan Bersin, Wilson Center Global Fellow; former Assistant Secretary Secretary for Policy and International Affairs, Department of Homeland Security



12:00pm - Beyond Pre-Clearance Luncheon

           Featured Speaker: Vincent Rigby, Associate Deputy Minister, Public Safety Canada 

           Moderator: James Dickmeyer, Wilson Center Global Fellow; former U.S. Consul General in Toronto

1:30pm - Getting to the Border of the Future: Policy, Pilots, and Pragmatism?

Moderator: Ambassador Paul Frazer, President, Frazer Associates



2:45pm - 3:00pm - Closing Comments:  Where Does Pre-Clearance Go Next? 

  • Gerry Bruno, Vice President, Federal Government Affairs, YVR Airport 
  • Lynne Platt, State Department Fellow, Canada Institute, Wilson Center