OTTAWA - A Canada-U.S. group that's supposed to be streamlining trade and commerce between the world's two biggest trading partners is instead suffering from a lack of momentum, disregarding new ideas and ignoring those industries affected the most by border barriers, stakeholders say.
No fewer than 28 different organizations and associations sent a letter to the U.S. Federal Register about the Regulatory Co-operation Council, created almost three years ago as part of the Beyond the Border initiatives and announced with fanfare by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama.
The dispatch, obtained by The Canadian Press, was among several about the RCC that was sent to the register, the official daily journal of the U.S. government, containing most routine publications and public notices concerning various federal agencies.
The organizations complain that they aren't being consulted about how to slash red tape at the border, which thickened significantly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Recent discussions by the RCC co-chairs have left many stakeholders concerned that the work being done in the RCC might not actually result in removing barriers," reads the letter, whose signatories include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters.
"We believe it is essential that industry be consulted as a true partner in this initiative rather than the recipient of results from already completed activities.... Stakeholder involvement should also include more than regular updates. Stakeholders should be part of a proactive process to find solutions that can ease regulatory burdens."
The letter also griped about the slow pace and the lack of transparency of the council's work, saying it's "unclear whether all the timelines are still on track."
Beyond the Border was conceived as a way to reduce regulatory burdens on a host of industries, including the agriculture and auto sectors, to integrate inspection systems and to allow travellers to move faster across the border. The RCC, meantime, was tasked with aligning and harmonizing regulations between Canada and the U.S.
While all of the 28 organizations that signed the letter are heartily supportive of the council's efforts, said Mathew Wilson of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, progress has been "pretty slow going in some of the key areas."
"If we leave it up to the regulators themselves to try to align regulations where they think they can, we're never going to get beyond the whack-a-mole approach. We have to tackle the entire system, as other countries have done," he said.
The letter makes that point, and also urges the council to communicate with stakeholders in more innovative ways.
"While webinars and phone calls are being conducted on an increasing basis, engagement still lacks a consistent routine, making it difficult for stakeholders to receive and offer regular updates," it reads.
"Moving forward, the RCC should develop a public outreach plan that features stakeholder engagement on a routine basis. This will ensure that the work plans are kept on track and potential problems are spotted in a timely manner."
There's been no response from the council as yet, but none of it will come as a surprise to the panel's members given that stakeholders have been voicing similar complaints for months, Wilson said.
The Canadian Council of Chief Executives, an organization that lobbies the government on behalf of Canada's biggest corporations, recently urged Harper to make the Beyond the Border initiatives and regulatory harmonization a priority during the current session of Parliament.
"So far tangible benefits have been few and far between," the chief executives wrote in a letter to Harper.
Regulatory co-operation between Canada and the U.S. is expected to be a key topic of discussion at this year's annual Canadian American Business Council summit in Ottawa early next month, which will feature policy experts, industry leaders and elected officials from both sides of the border. Key staffers on the file from the White House and the Privy Council will be in attendance.