MONTREAL — The Nexus trusted-traveller program will fully ramp back up within five weeks, allowing frequent border crossers to complete their applications and speed up their trips, the federal government said Monday.
Registration for the program has been on hold in Canada for nearly a year even after Nexus enrolment centres unlocked their doors in the United States, due in part to a clash over U.S. agents' right to carry guns on Canadian soil, among other legal protections.
The standoff led to a massive backlog in applications for the program, which allows pre-approved travellers to cross the border more quickly.
A compromise cemented at a summit in January established that Canadian border agents will now interview Nexus applicants separately from U.S. agents at eight Canadian airports, rather than together like before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) said in a release Monday that enrolment centres will reopen for applicant sit-downs at the Halifax and Winnipeg airports on March 27.
A staggered reopening will follow at the six other airports where there is customs preclearance:Vancouver on April 3, Calgary and Edmonton on April 12, Montreal on April 17 and Toronto and Ottawa on April 24.
Public safety minister Marco Mendicino deemed Nexus a "win-win" for Canada and the U.S., despite the inconvenience of separate interviews.
"That’s why we’re finding new, flexible solutions to cut wait times and enlarge the program. The reopening of Nexus airport enrolment centres in Canada is making a major difference — reducing the backlog, expanding capacity and helping more people get Nexus cards," he said in a statement.
The agency said in July the number of Nexus applications had ballooned by 21 per cent in just three months to nearly 342,000, though it said in an email Monday the backlog has shrunk to 269,000.
Under the agreement, Nexus applicants would sit down with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials at an airport preclearance facility for that portion of the process before boarding a stateside flight — provided they are travelling imminently and leaving from one of the eight designated airports.
The chat will happen only after applicants take part in a separate, appointment-only interview with Canadian agents at a Nexus airport enrolment centre.
New applications can take up to 12 to 14 months to process, including an initial risk assessment, said CBSA spokeswoman Rebecca Purdy.
Word of the bilateral arrangement first crystallized as the heads of government for Canada, the U.S. and Mexico wrapped up their North American Leaders’ Summit in Mexico City on Jan. 11.
Two other, even more roundabout avenues exist for first-time Nexus applicants.
They can set up a joint interview at one of 14 "land enrolment centres" in the U.S., or they can do a "split interview" at one of two Canadian land enrolment centres — already in place at the Thousand Islands and Peace Bridge land entry points in Ontario — followed by a sit-down at a U.S. land enrolment centre, according to the release.
The announcement gave no word about whether the two countries would expand that split-interview process to other sites, a possibility the two governments had been considering earlier this year.
Canada and the U.S. grappled for close to a year with how to clarify legal protections for American customs officers who worked at the once jointly staffed centres.
Customs and Border Protection confirmed last summer the hold-up revolved around legal "authorities” for its Nexus office staff.
“One example could include the authority to carry or have access to a firearm while on duty,” spokeswoman Rhonda Lawson said in an email then.
Two senior Canadian government sources told The Canadian Press last year the U.S. wanted its customs officers who work in Nexus centres to have the same protections that are guaranteed to its preclearance officers in Canada under a binational agreement, with sidearms as a major sticking point in the talks. Under the new deal, those protections will stay in place — since the officers will work in preclearance areas, not Nexus offices.
The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
All first-time Nexus applicants whose initial submissions are approved must come in for an enrolment centre interview before they get the green light. Some existing cardholders must also book a sit-down to renew their membership, which expires after five years.
About 75 per cent of current Nexus members are Canadian citizens, and another three per cent are permanent residents, according to the border agency.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2023.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press