'It’s like shooting yourself in the foot': Should Canada close its border with the U.S.?

Bryan Meler
·Associate Editor, Yahoo News Canada
·9-min read

What’s happening

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on March 16 that, with a few exceptions, Canada’s borders will be closed to non-citizens in an effort to halt the spread of COVID-19 in the country.

The exceptions include airline crews, diplomats and immediate family members of Canadians. There is also an exception in place for U.S. citizens.

When Trudeau was asked about why U.S. citizens are exempt from the travel ban, the prime minister said the level of integration of the two countries is “particular” and “requires a level of coordination.” On March 17, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland referred to the border between the U.S. and Canada as a “lifeline,” because of the reliance on groceries, medicine and other goods that travel between the two countries.

Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump also announced that they’ll be closing America’s border to 28 European countries, while not putting any measures in place for Canada. The actions of Trudeau and Trump reflect a desire to keep the U.S.-Canada border open, but have left Canadians wondering if it is in fact the right decision moving forward.

The debate

Following Trudeau’s announcement, British Columbia’s Health Minister Adrian Dix urged visitors form the U.S. to still not cross the border.

"It's our strong view and it's our strong message that visitors from the United States not come to British Columbia," said Dix.

"While we're very strongly supportive of most of those changes, we note that we remain concerned that access from visitors from the United States continues to be allowed, given the situation particularly in King and Snohomish county in Washington state, which affects British Columbia more than anyone else.”

As of March 16, King county has recorded 420 COVID-19 cases, while Snohomish county has 176. There have also been 42 deaths from the virus in Washington state.

British Columbia has recorded Canada’s first four fatalities relating to COVID-19, to go along with over 100 cases. Ontario health officials even said on Monday that about half of their newly reported 32 cases are linked to the U.S., while patients in the past few weeks have been diagnosed with the virus after recent travels in America.

There’s also been an outcry over the U.S.’s lack of testing based on their population size.

It’s unclear how many people have been tested for COVID-19 in the U.S., but The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project estimates there have been about 41,500 tests as of March 16, leading to just over 4000 positive diagnoses, for a population that numbers around 330 million people. On March 16, Trudeau revealed that Canada has tested 25,000 people, leading to about 400 positive diagnoses, for a population of around 37 million people.

The Prime Minister said his decision to close off the borders is based off the most recent advice of public health officials. A day earlier, Dr. Theresa Tam, the chief public health officer of Canada, said in a press conference that closing off borders has not proven to be an effective way to deal with the virus.

While Trudeau has closed off borders to foreign nationals, he’s left it open to the only country that has a direct border to Canada. In his press conference Monday, he said that they’ll continue making decision that will to ensure the safety or Canadians but to also continue the flow of “goods and necessary equipment.”

Unlike every other country that mainly flies and ships its goods to Canada, trade with the U.S. is heavily reliant on on-the-ground transportation, such as with truck drivers who cross the border on a daily basis. There are also thousands of people who cross the border each day to go to work.

“Even if it the restriction is limited to essential travel, it’s almost impossible to keep in place screening measures for each truck driver or person who needs to cross to go to work,” said Dr. John Kirton, the co-founder and director of the G7 Reserach Group, in an interview with Yahoo Canada News. “If you close the border now, Trudeau would be throwing a large number of Canadians out of work.”

By keeping its border open to the U.S., they’ll be able to efficiently transport goods that are vital for Canadians, especially from a health standpoint, said Kirton. Goods include medical products, while equipment can even include air conditioning systems for hospitals and care homes.

“If you close the border, it’s like shooting yourself in the foot,” said Dr. Nelson Wiseman, a professor part of the University of Toronto’s political science department, to Yahoo Canada News. “The Canadian economy would go down overnight, and for the U.S. soon after... Canada is not dependent, we need the U.S.”

Many goods are also created in tandem by both sides, such as automobiles, whose parts cross the Detroit-Windsor international border multiple times before the final product is built.

But above all else, we can’t forget that restricting movements between both sides would also be impossible to enforce, says Kirton. The 49th parallel’s porous terrain makes it the longest undefended border in the world, making it literally impossible to shut down to prevent people from finding ways to sneak across.

What’s next

When asked if the border will soon close to Americans during his press conference, Trudeau didn’t provide much detail, except that his government “ has more work to do in the upcoming days to ensure that we’re doing everything that we need to do to keep Canadians safe.”

Trudeau said that he and Trump are working in “coordination for [their] next steps.” If the U.S. closes its border to Canada, it will subsequently mean that Canada has also closed its border to the U.S.

In a press conference Monday, Trump said that he’s not considering closing the Canada-U.S. border, but also did not rule it out indefinitely.

“We think about it,” said Trump. “If we don’t have to do it, that’d be good.”

Kirton doesn’t believe that we’ll ever see essential travel being barred on both ends of the borders, but we could probably see a ban on non-essential trips, such as visiting a shopping mall.

Whether that will happen is on Canadian and U.S. citizens. At this point, both sides have been recommended to avoid “non-essential travel” and instead practice self-isolation. Citizens on both sides have therefore been given the liberty to make the right choice, says Kirton.

“We’re trusting Canadians to listen to the government,”said Kirton. “We know that they’ll want to do whatever it takes to protect themselves.”

Wiseman agrees, asking “Who would even want to travel anywhere right now?”

If U.S. citizens and Canadians can’t act wisely, and we continue to see more cases in Canada that are linked to travel in the U.S., it’s unclear how both Trudeau and Trump will have to move forward. On March 17, Freeland said that “nothing is off the table,” but that “now is not the time...for our American friends to be coming just for a visit.”


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