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.
After one year, seven months and a still-to-be-determined number of days, two-way travel is set to resume at the Canada-U.S. land border sometime in November. For thousands of cross-border couples and families forced to live with the separation – or endure long quarantines, pay for expensive flights to skirt the land border restrictions or meet up in conjugal tents at the Peace Arch parks at the Washington-B.C. border – it will be a day of relief and rejoicing. For border towns and tourist industries dependent on Canadian and U.S. visitors, it will be a chance to start rebuilding.
The United States followed Canada’s lead Wednesday in announcing the border would soon be reopened for fully vaccinated travellers. Some details remain unclear, and Canada’s COVID-19 testing requirements still pose a costly hurdle to many. Even with those limitations, the lifting of restrictions should lead to a surge in cross-border traffic, which has fallen 95 per cent or more since the border was first closed to “non-essential” travellers.
But we should not forget what happened during the pandemic: Two governments with a long history of managing the border for mutual benefit instead carried out the most poorly co-ordinated actions since 1846, when the 49th parallel was drawn straight through the Tsawwassen Peninsula south of Vancouver, lopping off the U.S. town of Point Roberts, Wash. Once the new border rules are fully implemented, the U.S. and Canadian governments should launch a binational effort to learn from their mistakes and be better prepared for future disruptions.
SARS-CoV-2, to be sure, was a “novel” coronavirus that posed enormous challenges to governments across the world. But the U.S. and Canada should have been better prepared than any two neighbouring countries to manage that uncertainty. The 9/11 terrorist attacks posed similarly unfamiliar challenges, yet the two governments worked at the highest levels to increase security while preserving efficient cross-border travel and trade. And they had prepared joint plans for pandemic border responses in the aftermath of the 2003 SARS and 2009 H1N1 outbreaks.
Instead, after an initial agreement in March. 2020. to permit “essential” travel for workers such as truckers and health care professionals, the two countries retreated into their own shells. The original one-month border closure was extended month after month. There were no regular high-level discussions between the governments, no joint pilot projects to test screening measures and no consistent communication with the public on the criteria for a reopening.
Instead, the approaches quickly diverged, creating a hodgepodge of rules that made little sense. The U.S. never shut down air travel from Canada, leading to a bizarre world in which Canadians could fly from Windsor to Detroit via Toronto but not drive the 20 minutes through the tunnel. The U.S. never required travellers to quarantine, as Canada did, though some U.S. states requested it; Canada briefly forced both foreign travellers and returning Canadians into costly quarantine hotels. Seven months into the pandemic, Canada offered generous exceptions to permit extended families to reunite in Canada; the U.S. never reciprocated.
Most strikingly, when Canada announced it would open the land border for vaccinated Americans in August, the U.S. did not follow suit. The official explanation was the rise in the number of Delta variant cases, though the outbreak was far worse in the U.S. than in Canada. The decision to reopen next month seems, in part, intended to avoid the acute diplomatic embarrassment of permitting air entry from almost every other country in the world – which the U.S. will do shortly – while keeping Canadians locked out at the land border.
There will certainly be further hiccups in the reopening that could have been avoided with some simple advanced planning by the two governments. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not yet decided whether to recognize mixed vaccines, which are common in Canada. It is not clear if there will be exceptions for children not yet eligible for vaccination. And Canada’s requirement for expensive PCR tests, even for vaccinated drivers, will discourage the short cross-border trips that are the lifeblood of border towns such as Point Roberts.
Perhaps those challenges will be a chance for Ottawa and Washington to relearn how to co-operate. After 9/11, the U.S. and Canada built new border management systems that remain with us today and became a model for much of the rest of the world. There will be similar challenges in designing rules for a post-pandemic world in which health screening will need to be seamlessly integrated into border procedures. Canada and the U.S. should step up now and become leaders again.
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