09/01/2011 04:30 EDT | Updated 10/31/2011 05:12 EDT

Ten years after 9-11, Canada-U.S. relationship has both trouble spots and bright spots

WASHINGTON - There's no better testament to the close ties between the tiny towns of Van Buren, Me., and St-Leonard, N.B., than Gary Levesque's surname.

The municipal councillor for Van Buren, one of dozens of Levesques in a town with French-Canadian roots, remembers fondly the days before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when he and his Canadian relatives could travel with ease across the sleepy Canada-U.S. border crossing.

"St-Leonard is our sister community, so there are family members on both sides for most of us, and now it requires a passport just to go and see your family and that's a direct result of Sept. 11," Levesque said in a recent interview.

"A lot of our citizens are on the elderly side, and they're on social security, so they really haven't gotten around to getting passports. They're really not seeing their families anymore. And that's been a real shame. These communities are so close in ways that go beyond economics."

In the immediate wake of that terrible day, many Van Buren residents were saddened to see Canada viewed with suspicion as a potential terrorist haven and the border they freely traversed seen as a porous threat to the safety and security of the United States.

"For the majority of people in town here, it really seemed like all of that was being blown out of proportion. But of course we're patriotic too — many of the people here have a military background — so they didn't want to say too much," he said.

"It was a difficult time here."

Levesque's experience nicely encapsulates the impact on the Canada-U.S. relationship in the decade since terrorists commandeered fuel-engorged jetliners and aimed them at iconic American landmarks, killing thousands of innocent citizens.

"Before Sept. 11, we had embarked on this course of making the border less significant, more open," said Christopher Sands, a Canada-U.S. relations expert at the Washington-based Hudson Institute.

"We had free trade, and we were moving towards similar standards of living, even culturally — we watched the same shows, we cheered for the same teams, we were becoming more and more alike as far as Americans were concerned. There was this idea that Canadians were just like us."

In fact, Canadians — historically fearful of being culturally inhaled by their significantly more populous neighbour to the south — were far more nationalistic than Americans prior to Sept. 11, 2001, Sands said.

All that soon changed.

"Sept. 11 reasserted the border as a topic of debate, to be sure, but also, culturally, we saw in the U.S. a surge of nationalism that separated us from our closest friend and neighbour. The question became: 'Who are they? Why should we trust them?' It definitely became a 'us versus them' era, even towards Canada."

A decade on, it's a suspicion that still exists.

A recent study by Canada's Fraser Institute found that between 2001 and 2010, congressional lawmakers were deeply concerned about Canada's "porous" border, believing it left the U.S. vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

There were also "persistent and repeated" allegations from legislators that Canada is lax about terrorism and provided the route by which some of the 9-11 hijackers entered the U.S.

That's a diehard myth that Frank McKenna, the former New Brunswick premier who served as Canada's ambassador to the United States from 2005 to 2006, once described as a "viral infection."

Gary Doer, Canada's current ambassador, has been called upon to dismiss it himself, most notably when a Tea Party candidate repeated the claim during last year's mid-term election campaign.

The groundless claim is so prevalent, in fact, that Canadians themselves believe it. A new Canadian Press-Harris Decima poll suggests one in five Canadians think the terrorists took a Canadian route into the United States.

Fewer than half of those surveyed were aware that's a falsehood, while 34 per cent didn't offer an opinion on the question.

It's an encouraging shift downward from July 2009, when 29 per cent polled believed the terrorists came from Canada. That same survey, in fact, suggested more Canadians than Americans believed the myth.

Nonetheless, enduring American fears about the security of the Canadian border have resulted in some absurd moments in Van Buren, Levesque says.

"It's the townspeople here who work border patrol, and before Sept. 11, it was: 'Yeah, yeah, go ahead, I know who you are,'" he said.

"And now, with all these new passport requirements and security measures, they're having to stop people and check this document and that document and ask all sorts of questions, and it's their brother or their cousin. It seems ridiculous."

Maryscott Greenwood, an American international trade expert and senior adviser to the Canadian American Business Council, said there's no question 9-11 fears about Canada resulted in heightened security measures that posed serious hardships for citizens, businesses and manufacturers on both sides of the border.

"Since 9-11, companies have to work much harder to secure their supply chains, for example — now a company has to reach back to find out where something has come from and vouch for its safety and authenticity, and that's expensive and time-consuming," she said.

"But at the same time, both governments have stepped up their ability to process information more efficiently. The gamma-ray inspections of goods on trains, for example — that would never have progressed to where it is today without 9-11."

She also points to programs like Nexus that sprang from 9-11. It allows those who journey frequently between the U.S. and Canada to be treated as "trusted travellers," enabling them to breeze through security and cross the border with more ease than ever before.

"In some ways, Sept. 11 actually prompted some real progress," she said. "It resulted in a lot more collaboration on border issues that probably wouldn't have happened in the absence of a crisis."

And as Americans remember Sept. 11 in the days to come, Canada's helping hand to the United States during the one of the worst crises in its history is also being commemorated.

At a daylong event on Sept. 8 at Washington's Newseum, next door to the Canadian embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Newfoundland town of Gander is being feted for the role it played in housing thousands of people stranded when 38 commercial aircraft, and four military planes, were grounded there 10 years ago amid the chaos of 9-11.

Gander's mayor will be on hand as the town receives a special award. The summit will pay tribute to the people who lost their lives, honour the survivors and recognize the work of those who responded to the events.

"Like just about everyone around the world that morning, we were watching our televisions in horror and feeling completely powerless in terms of helping the people who were caught up in the events," Mayor Claude Elliott said in a news release announcing the event.

"But when the planes started landing, there suddenly was something we could do and to this day, I think we feel blessed to have had that opportunity."

Other bright spots are appearing on the horizon, according to both Sands and Greenwood.

Post-9-11, Sands said, the freshly created Department of Homeland Security became the primary government agency tasked with managing the Canada-U.S. relationship. Unlike the State Department and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative before it, Sands said, Homeland Security treated Canada no differently than America's more troublesome trading partners.

"State's approach was to seek exemptions for Canada, to basically just wave Canada through and reassure everyone that most U.S. foreign policy initiatives weren't meant to hit Canada," he said. "With the USTR, there were quid pro quo negotiations, a give and take to the relationship."

Not so with Homeland Security.

"Canada was lumped in with everyone else," Sands said.

"The reality that Canada was a close, co-operative friend and neighbour was muffled as DHS tried to have one rule for everybody. But that's changing under the Obama administration; they're now grappling with treating Canada differently.... There are tentative signs that there's a willingness to recognize Canada is a unique case."

Greenwood agrees, pointing out that both governments are currently hard at work coming up with so-called smart border initiatives, expected to be unveiled this fall following a joint framework announcement in February by U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"It's taken 10 years to build up these added layers of bureaucracy and now there are efforts by both governments to peel back some of those redundant layers," she said.

"Interestingly enough, the economic collapse caused the U.S. government to rethink many of them. The border has become a competitive disadvantage to businesses on both sides of the border, and after the economic crisis, that's the last thing either country needs. And so out of some terrible events, positive developments are beginning to emerge."