DETROIT - In the long-distant past - on Sept. 10, 2001, say - people vaguely realized that Canada was a nation in its own right. But crossing over, which many Detroiters did every day for lunch, wasn't exactly seen as an international adventure. “Sure, there was a border and you had to go through customs, but it was more like a transaction; it wasn't really a conceptual thing,” said Rocco Delvecchio, Canada's newly appointed consul general in Detroit, from his office in the Renaissance Center, Detroit's gleaming signature skyscraper.
In those far-off times, Canadians were often more worried about how to preserve an independent identity than about security issues. Diplomats fretted about how to get a little respect, especially in Washington. The two nations' 5,000-mile-long boundary was sometimes referred to as “the world's longest unguarded cliche.” The wife of one Canadian ambassador once sarcastically suggested that to raise her country's profile “maybe we should invade South Dakota, or something.”
Suddenly, the world changed. In the first days after the terrorist attacks, employees of Canada's largest and perhaps most commercially important consulate found themselves facing five-hour waits at both the bridge and tunnel. Commercial traffic was snarled. People who lived in Southeast Michigan largely forgot about zipping over for a quick trip to Windsor's elegant casino or dinner at one of the city's wonderful and inexpensive restaurants. Matters weren't helped by media reports - totally false - that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers came through Canada.
Suddenly, Canada had an image problem. Beyond that, both nations had a vastly larger problem, which was how to increase security without ruining commerce. Canada and the United States are critically important to each other. Canada trades more with Michigan than with any other state or even any other country, except for the United States as a whole. Ohio exports more goods - $14 billion in 2002 - to Canada than to any other market, period.
Canada is even more dependent on the United States. Mess with that economic marriage, and a lot of children might, figuratively and literally, go hungry. Frankly, Canadians, in their polite and understated way, resented the charge that they were a security problem. They believed, with some reason, that their half of the border was actually more secure than their giant neighbor's. But at the same time, both countries acknowledged that they had a lot to do. “The fact is, none of the terrorists came through Canada,” a Canadian diplomat said soon after the attacks. “But the fact is also that they probably could have.”
Fixing things became a top priority for both countries, and within months, President Bush and Jean Chretien, Canada's prime minister, met in Detroit to sign the “Smart Border Declaration” pledging both nations to create just that, “a border where we could identify and expedite low-risk people and goods, and focus our resources on high-risk traffic.”
To some extent, that's already been done. Most of the time, commercial traffic sails across the border, though travelers now must show a birth certificate or a passport in addition to a driver's license. On Sept. 11, 2002, this writer went to dinner in Canada, and my waiting time at the border was less than a minute. But minutes can stretch to hours when security alerts are called, as when “condition orange” was proclaimed earlier this month. And that has had an impact.
“Actually, commercial traffic pretty quickly got back to normal after 9/11,” said George Costaris, who has been in charge of political, economic, and public affairs for the Detroit consulate for many years. But passenger car traffic is down about 20 percent. Officials of both countries are concerned. Now, frequent travelers who are seen by both countries as “low-risk” can apply for a NEXUS card, which will enable them to zip across the border in special traffic lanes. State of the art biotechnology will ensure that the card won't work if stolen. Already operational at the Port Huron/Sarnia border, NEXUS will be running in Detroit later this spring. A similar program, FAST (Free and Secure Trade) is designed to do the same for commercial drivers.
This is all likely to make life more interesting for Mr. Delvecchio, a distant cousin of former Detroit Red Wings' star Alex Delvecchio. He's had a variety of careers. The 57-year-old diplomat started out as an aerospace engineer who planned on working for NASA. When the space program faced cutbacks, he began a career in Ontario television before switching to government service.
For the next few years, he plans to spend a lot of time visiting the five states the consulate serves. “I feel if I'm at my desk very much, I'm not doing my job,” he grinned. And if that job is more interesting than it used to be, that may suit him just fine.