David Jacobson was the U.S. ambassador to Canada from 2009 to 2013 and is vice-chair, BMO Financial Group.
After more than a year of pandemic-driven restrictions between the United States and Canada, we are finally seeing a gradual resumption of cross-border travel. While this is good news, details on how and when a full reopening can take place are still up in the air.
Both governments have to get this right. This means remaining vigilant to the risks of COVID-19 variants while also ensuring that people on both sides of the border can count on a predictable, stable and long-term return to normal.
A major key to success will be empowering travellers to keep things moving efficiently, with rules that are as consistent as possible between the two countries. Otherwise, an open border will be a severely backlogged one.
Decisions affecting the U.S.-Canada border are complex and enormously high-stakes. Over $1.5-billion in trade crosses every day, and communities on both sides have long relied on the free movement of people to support local economies.
There is, however, a template for how Canadians and Americans can work together to get these big decisions right. In 2011, while I was the United States ambassador to Canada, president Barack Obama and prime minister Stephen Harper entered into the Beyond the Border agreement, which began: “The extensive mobility of people, goods, capital and information between our two countries has helped ensure that our societies remain open, democratic and prosperous.” Those words guided the declaration to maintain a secure flow of people and goods. While COVID-19 has caused a necessary pause, the same notion of the agreement, which made sense a decade ago, should be a key to the efficient, safe and predictable reopening of the border in 2021.
A core principle of the agreement is that the border itself is the absolute worst place to determine whether specific people or goods should be allowed to cross. By its very nature, the border is a choke point. There are only so many land, air and sea entry points and only so many border officers. The border is where delays stack up and where mistakes can easily be made. New procedures such as verifying vaccination status and COVID-19 test results could add further delays.
Embracing opportunities to safely pre-clear travel on both sides alleviates a lot of this pressure. Not only is pre-clearance helpful and efficient, but people who travel across the border in one direction almost always go back the other way. The confusion resulting from different rules in different directions is an invitation to chaos.
There is a model for how to apply these principles with the ArriveCAN app, developed to assist with pre-clearance decisions for those entering Canada. But there isn’t a similar online tool for people arriving in the United States.
While half a loaf is better than none, it is important that the U.S. develop its own system so travellers can do the clearance work before they reach a crossing. It would be even better if Canada could assist its friend with learnings on the development of such a tool to speed the process.
Given the warmth President Joe Biden feels toward Canada and its people, and the importance he attaches to trade between the two countries, establishing pre-clearance infrastructure would be a strong step in the right direction to a full border reopening.
It should be the responsibility of all citizens to keep things moving – for their own sanity and that of fellow travellers. (I confess I have been guilty of leaving the proper documents at home.) Every minute spent by an officer evaluating someone who could have been cleared before they reached the border is a minute not spent on someone else. The more information travellers from both countries can provide online before they leave for the border or airport, the faster, safer and more predictable the process will be for everyone.
We must never compromise on protecting privacy, including medical information. Anybody not comfortable submitting this information, and who is prepared to wait in line, should still have that option. But those willing to pre-clear, with evidence of vaccination or a recent COVID-19 test, will make the experience a lot smoother.
Closing the border was an urgent response to an unprecedented challenge. Let’s sustain that sense of urgency in ensuring it opens safely, efficiently and for good.
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