That sounded like a rather fruitless phone chat between U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau the other day.
The two amigos talked sport for a while, including our remarkable women’s soccer team subduing the overdog Americans at the Tokyo Olympics. But they tippy-toed around numerous pachyderms in the room – in particular, how Canada seems to have gotten hoodwinked on opening its border.
Pressured by Washington, Ottawa announced it would open the border to non-essential travel on Aug. 9. The Americans aren’t reciprocating, however, despite giving us the impression all along that they would do so.
Indeed, their boundary could remain closed for several months longer, according to many Americans in the know, even though the COVID-19 infection rate among Canadians is very low. But with the Delta variant surging in their own country, Americans will be able to cross into Canada.
Why the long border stall by the Yanks? “Honestly, we’re scratching our heads,” said Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University. “It seemed Homeland Security was ready to open in June.” But it didn’t happen, and now, she said, the administration is dragging its heels.
The delay on their side, several Americans told me, works to their advantage. “They want to wait and see how the Canadian border opening goes,” said Scotty Greenwood, head of the Canadian American Business Council, “before making up their minds on when to open.”
In other words, Canada now gets to play the role of guinea pig.
Often, the analogy proffered for the two countries’ relationship is that of the elephant and the mouse. Now, it’s that tailless South American rodent frequently used as a specimen for laboratory research.
One hopes that the Prime Minister bluntly raised the matter with the President. But from the readout of their conversation, apparently no abusive epithets were hurled.
A possible explanation for the boundary blockage is that the U.S. hasn’t yet agreed upon a method of screening incoming Canadians. But you’d think they would have done that months ago, said Ms. Greenwood, a North Carolinian.
Another rationale for the delay could be that, with the Delta variant outbreak, the U.S. is now more preoccupied with its own problems. “Domestic politics are the priority,” said Kathryn Bryk Friedman, a Canada-U.S. specialist at the University of Buffalo. “Here in Buffalo, the surge is very serious. There will likely be a masking mandate soon.”
It could also be that there are “too many cooks in the kitchen,” as Ms. Trautman put it. There are about five agencies dealing with COVID-19 issues, and it’s taking forever to get a consensus.
Additionally, there’s the problem of needing to co-ordinate with Mexico. Opening one border without doing the same for the other presents potential legal and other difficulties.
Back in June, when the U.S. appeared ready to open, Ottawa put out the word that it needed more time. The opportunity was missed, some believe.
Even with Mr. Biden replacing Donald Trump, there has been no progress for Canada on its priorities, including the border, the continued detention of two Canadians in China in retaliation for executing the U.S.’s extradition request of a Huawei executive, and the strong Buy America laws Mr. Biden is dead serious about implementing.
Bruce Anderson, chairman of Abacus Data, said he doesn’t expect U.S. relations to figure prominently in the upcoming Canadian election. That said, Mr. Trudeau would have appreciated the like-minded liberal President throwing him a bone or two before the election is called.
The difficulty, said Ms. Greenwood, is that while Mr. Biden “wants to treat our allies better, he has to reassure American workers he is standing up for them.”
But Canadians shouldn’t worry about this President, said James Roosevelt, co-chair of the Democratic National Committee and the grandson of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Mr. Biden will restore Canada’s confidence in the United States, he said in an interview; the border will be opened and any American protectionism – exemplified in the administration’s mammoth infrastructure program – “will not be done blindly or drastically.”
Mr. Roosevelt, who is currently heading up a group pushing Mr. Biden to go full out on a new New Deal, recalled how his grandfather carved out a close relationship with Prime Minister Mackenzie King that greatly benefitted both. Mr. Biden, he said, shares many of FDR’s qualities as a progressive but “not radical Democrat.”
Progress on bilateral issues has also been impaired by the extended absence of a U.S. ambassador in Ottawa. But Mr. Biden last month named David Cohen, a telecom executive and Democratic fundraiser, to the post. With his close ties to Mr. Biden, he will have the ear of the White House.
The way Canada has been hosed on the border issue, it will be sorely needed.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.