Border mayors to keep up pressure on passport issue

FORT FRANCES—A group of 60 mayors and officials from both side of the border, including Fort Frances Mayor Dan Onichuk, gathered in Windsor last Thursday to come up with an alternative to the controversial U.S. passport requirement.
The mayors met to draft a solution to satisfy the needs of cities as well as the U.S. government, and ended up calling on Washington to, among other things, delay the implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), which would require passports or other combinations of documents for everyone entering the United States.
According to a press release from the City of Windsor, last week’s summit also “called on both federal governments to include cities and communities in developing solutions for more effective border security that will continue and strengthen cross-border relationships.”
As well, the summit requested the U.S. government:
•provide readily available, accessible, and low-cost documents;
•permit acceptance of a combination of documents, driver’s licence with birth certificates, and/or another secondary document;
•make short-term passes available for discretionary/spontaneous travellers;
•allow a WHTI option for Canadian citizens;
•make special consideration for minors;
•establish a voluntary pilot project;
•undertake a cost/benefit analysis;
•engage the Canadian government; and
•engage the public with a communications/marketing plan.
“The whole thing about it is the pressure has to be kept up on Congress in the States,” said Mayor Onichuk.
“That was really what half of the ‘Meet Me at the Border’ celebrations that myself and [International Falls Mayor] Shawn Mason were working on was all about—to create more awareness,” he added.
“Of course, this had [Toronto] Mayor David Miller there, Mayor [Kwame] Kilpatrick of Detroit, the mayor of Windsor, the mayor of Niagara Falls-Buffalo, a lot of people from the different consulates, and it raised the profile of it that much more, with that much more media,” Mayor Onichuk noted.
“We’ve got to keep it up,” he stressed. “The Americans are starting to realize it’s not just about people not going to Canada. If they’re not going to Canada, they’re not going through the border communities, that means they’re not going to Florida.
“We’re making giant steps that way.”
Mayor Onichuk noted the largest amount of tourist dollars spent in the U.S. is not spent in border states, but destinations like Florida and Arizona, and the U.S. government has to realize that by cutting off tourists at the border, other parts of the country will suffer.
Mayor Onichuk noted border communities also are trying to educate authorities on what living in a border community is like—and how citizens on either side view cross-border relationships.
“We don’t say we’re going to the United States. We say ‘I’m going across the river. We’re going up the lakes. I’m going over the theatre,’” the mayor remarked, adding the same goes for Falls’ residents going to the curling club here in Fort Frances.
“It’s about educating [the federal government] how, socially and economically, we have our community here,” he added.
Under the WHTI, all Canadian and U.S. travellers will be required to have passports or an identification card for air and sea travel by January, 2007, and for land crossings by January, 2008.
But only 23 percent of Americans and 40 percent of Canadians hold valid passports, meaning the WHTI likely will have a devastating effect on cross-border tourism.
Mayor Onichuk said the mayors instead are pushing for an alternative to passports.
“What we’re recommending is to put citizenship on driver’s licences and be done with it,” he said. “That way the issue is taken care of.
“We renew our licences all the time, and it’s not like a three- or four-year-old kid is going to go across the border by themselves. It’s all about people 16 and up.”
Mayor Onichuk added Michigan and New York are looking right now at developing pilot projects with alternative IDs.
He also warned that if nothing is done, and passports are required to get into the States, the impact on Borderland will be devastating.
“The polls out there determine that there will be a 15 percent drop. So what does that mean? Take it from there,” the mayor said. “Last year, the traffic was down, and tourism was down, by three-four percent and we’ve seen it.
“You can just imagine 15 percent.”
Last Thursday’s summit was co-hosted by Mayor Kilpatrick of Detroit and Mayor Miller of Toronto, and was attended by more than 60 mayors, government officials, and business representatives from Canada and the United States.
Mayor Onichuk said another border mayors’ summit is planned this fall to further discuss the WHTI.
(Fort Frances Times)