David Collenette lectures on post-9/11 crisis management

Former federal transport minister David Collenette (left), spoke at Glendon on March 16 about post-9/11 crisis management. His special lecture titled “Crisis Management: September 11, 2001 and the New Transportation Security Order” was relevant to the Glendon community because of its tradition in educating public servants who reach the highest ranks. In delivering his lecture, Collenette drew on his vast repertoire of experience and spoke in both official languages with fluidity and ease.

Collenette (BA Hons. ’69, MA ’04) is now a Distinguished Fellow in the Department of Political Science at Glendon College. His appointment took effect at the start of the 2004-2005 academic term. In a frank presentation, Collenette spoke about the testing of Canadian parliament and law following the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Centre in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.

His lecture was particularly timely given a report released March 14 by a task force chaired by former deputy prime minister John Manley, former Mexican finance minister Pedro Aspe and former Massachusetts governor William Weld. In the report, the task force called for the creation of a common economic and security community by the end of the decade. The document’s proposals would try to create a secure perimeter around the continent, while making it easier for people and goods to move across the shared borders.

Collenette disagreed with the report, stating unequivocally that its recommendations, if implemented, would threaten Canadian sovereignty. He said the close cooperation between the US and Canada was tested during the Sept. 11 crisis and proved to be very workable and secure.

“This was a landmark event and a crisis of huge proportions,” said Collenette. As the minister of transport for the government, he said that it was contingent on his department to ensure that planes in mid-air were re-routed to locations with the lowest population density. “We knew it was a terrorist attack, what we did not know was how many other planes were going to be hijacked. So all planes were redirected to Atlantic Canada. This was a conscious decision because if there were other terrorists on planes, we had to keep the planes in low population areas. We were also facing the fact that any plane straying into US airspace would be shot down immediately.”

The Aeronautics Act, which was the basis for Canadian law in 2001, was not written with 9/11 in mind, noted Collenette, and the events of that day forced both Canadian and US governments to develop new policies that would enable them to act quickly and efficiently in the face of future crises.

“We were flying solo and it was my responsibility to ensure that all decisions were made within Canadian law,” said Collenette. “Many public policy tools were not in place at the time of Sept. 11, 2001. We had 229 wide bodied jets in the air, some of them low on fuel, there were 33,000 people and we had to land those jets, get the passengers processed and follow up on security concerns within hours of the events of that day.”

Working closely with the US Federal Aviation Agency, Collenette and his staff ensured that passengers were screened and that all were accounted for and cleared before getting off the planes. “The aftermath of the attacks brought a reorganization of security and Canadian and US laws. In Canada, we looked to the US model for our changes and as a result we have better coordination of security.” However, he said that while there was still a tremendous amount to be done to ensure safe, secure and speedy transport of goods and people across the border, relinquishing control over the borders was not the way to go. Increased coordination of security efforts has reaped benefits, said Collenette, but should have limits.

Collenette said that the basis of a secure North America already exists and that Canada is well-equipped to handle security challenges; it is a good partner to the US, and he emphasized the word “partner”. He said the evidence of the tremendous challenges that faced the Canadian government immediately following the attacks on Sept. 11 and the speed in which the Canadian government acted to secure the skies and the safety of 33,000 passengers has been sadly undermined by the current climate of concern over security within the US.

“Borders exist to delineate nation states. Elimination of the borders in North America would eventually lead to one sovereign government,” said Collenette. “Canada was highly successful in dealing with 9/11 and a ‘Fortress North America’ would doom the strong and independent Canada that we know.”