Progress made in border crossing issues: NOTO

The executive director of the Northern Ontario Tourist Outfitters (NOTO) is encouraged by the federal government’s response to concerns from local business owners about what they see as unduly harsh treatment of U.S. visitors by Canada Customs agents at the Fort Frances port of entry.
Doug Reynolds said a meeting between Citizenship and Immigration minister Denis Coderre and local MP Robert Nault in Dryden two weeks ago was a step in the right direction.
“It sounds like things are moving forward on this,” said Reynolds, who spoke about the issue last Friday at the annual fall meeting of the North Western Ontario Tourism Association at the Fort Frances Curling Club.
“We got some clear indications that the things we we’re asking for we’re extremely reasonable. [Coderre] wanted to immediately work with us on the problems,” he added.
Mark Dunn, Coderre’s director of communications, said the minister’s effort in meeting with Nault proves how seriously he is taking the concerns being presented.
“The minister actively wants to find the solution,” stressed Dunn. “He and Mr. Nault are seatmates in the House of Commons so they talk quite frequently.
“The minister does intend to make another visit to the region as soon as possible.”
Dunn said a working group will be formed to discuss the issue, possibly involving representatives from the minister’s office, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the Canadian Tourism Commission, and the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency.
He stated there currently is no timeframe for when a resolution would be reached.
“Some of the changes [the business owners] would want at the end of the day would require legislative changes,” noted Dunn, who added an advertising campaign focusing on border crossing regulations and aimed at people living in states bordering the region was another option being examined.
The central issue being examined is what Reynolds called “an arbitrary enforcement change” since the summer of 2001 at the Fort Frances port of entry, which has seen Customs agents turn away prospective U.S. visitors for what Reynolds referred to as any “minor criminality” on their record from as far back as 10 years ago—or even longer.
“[The change] was unannounced, and the industry had no chance to respond to it—they just had to live with it,” Reynolds charged.
“It’s affected the entire business community, and everyone knows it. It cost us $9 million-plus last summer [2001] in tourism.”
Reynolds said a three-part solution was necessary to help improve the current situation.
“[Citizenship and Immigration Canada] have to clarify the rules when it comes to who’s in and who’s out. Some informal lines of communication between business owners, the tourism industry, and senior levels of government need to be created.
“And we have to have a pre-clearance system in place, so people can apply in advance to avoid driving 18 hours to get to the border and then finding out they can’t get in,” he added.
Geoff Gillon, with the Rainy River Future Development Corp., said the move towards a resolution speaks favourably about the benefits of co-operation on the part of local business owners.
“The lesson learned is we can’t stand on the dock, look at our feet, and complain,” said Gillon. “We have to do something about it.”
NWOTA director Dennis McDougall, who owns Pier North Marina in Morson, is taking a wait-and-see approach as to whether anything tangible emerges from the discussions.
“It seems like 30 years ago, we were talking about this,” he said. “There’s always been a problem in Fort Frances with the attitude of the Customs agents.
“[Customs agents] let in undocumented Afghanis at the Toronto airport, but they won’t let U.S. citizens in here when they’ve got $5,000 to spend . . . they keep throwing obstacles in our way,” McDougall remarked.