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A truck at a protest blockade at the U.S.-Canada border in Coutts, Alta., on Feb. 2.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Edward Alden is a visiting professor of U.S.-Canada economic relations at Western Washington University and the author of The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11.

If Canadians wanted to let a few truckers and their friends clog the streets of downtown Ottawa and blow horns in the name of free speech, that was their business. But the moment protesters blocked the U.S. border crossing at Coutts, Alta., on Jan. 29, the RCMP should have hauled them away and ensured that the $44-million in daily trade there, much of it in perishable animal products, kept flowing unimpeded.

The failure to do so has done enormous damage to Canada’s reputation at the worst possible time, when some in the United States are more than happy to start cutting Canadian companies out of critical supply chains. As Flavio Volpe, the energetic lobbyist for Canadian auto parts firms, correctly put it, the border disruptions have “caused potentially irreparable harm to Canada’s reputation as a reliable trading partner.”

The Trudeau government, and most of Canada, paid little attention to faraway Coutts. It wasn’t until protesters decided to try out the same tactic at the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor, Ont., and Detroit, where some $400-million in goods cross each day, that the threat became too big to ignore.

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Within days, auto plants on both sides of the border were cutting production as parts failed to arrive on time. That prompted U.S. President Joe Biden to get on the phone with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to plead with America’s closest ally and biggest trading partner to reopen the border.

Last Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford finally declared a state of emergency, won a court injunction, and over the weekend police began towing vehicles and removing protesters. The bridge has now reopened.

But the long-term damage will be harder to repair. Canadians have not quite woken up to how perilous their position in the world has become, caught between a hostile Russia, a hostile China and an increasingly unsympathetic United States. As uncomfortable as it may be, Canada needs the United States more than ever, and should be doing everything it can to strengthen the relationship.

The good news is Canada-U.S. co-operation has improved considerably since Mr. Biden replaced the extremely unreliable and occasionally aggressive Donald Trump. But Mr. Biden is no Barack Obama or Bill Clinton. He is the most union-friendly president in decades, and a strong supporter of Buy American laws that discriminate against Canada and other trading partners.

Before Senator Joe Manchin pulled the plug on a larger bill, Mr. Biden was all-in on massive subsidies for buyers of U.S.-made electric vehicles, which would have cut Canadian firms out of much of the supply chain for the next generation of vehicles. His administration is still actively looking for ways to get that measure through Congress.

This month, the White House is also wrapping up its year-long investigation into the security of U.S. supply chains. The interim report last June acknowledged that, even as the U.S. is trying to “reshore” production to reduce dependence on China, it will need to work closely with allies; it even coined a new term “friendshoring” for countries the U.S. trusts to be part of vital supply chains. Canada should be at the top of that list, but the disruptions of the past week have cast that into doubt.

Some American politicians are more than happy to take advantage. Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Dingell of Michigan warned in a CBC interview that if the closings continue for “an extended period of time, it is going to make all of us use this as further evidence that we shouldn’t be reliant on another country.”

Nor will Canada find any friends among Republicans. Mr. Trump and his supporters have become the most enthusiastic supporters of what protest organizers have called the freedom convoy, urging similar actions in the U.S. and other countries. Mr. Trump has criticized Mr. Trudeau as a “far-left lunatic [who] has destroyed Canada with insane COVID mandates.”

Canada and the U.S. desperately need to rebuild the deeper co-operation at the border that was lost during the pandemic, when both countries turned inward and enacted a series of inconsistent border and travel rules. While communication has improved under Mr. Biden, the two countries still somehow failed to co-ordinate the timing of new vaccine mandates for cross-border truckers, the proximate cause of the protests.

Any threat to an open and efficient border should be treated with utmost urgency on both sides, and they should start with getting the crossing at Coutts open immediately, and ensuring other vulnerable crossings, such as those in Surrey, B.C., and Fort Erie, Ont., remain open.

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