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The Canada Border Services Agency inspection station is seen at the Douglas-Peace Arch Canada-U.S. border crossing in Surrey, B.C., on May 13, 2021.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

As provinces lay out their benchmarks for reopening – Ontario is going slow; Quebec wants to allow 2,500 people to watch a Stanley Cup game; Manitoba is in such a bad situation that it is imposing new restrictions – the next item on the agenda is the border.

When can it reopen? To whom? And under what conditions?

When the pandemic hit in March, 2020, the sort-of closing of the U.S.-Canada border was one of the jolts that registered the severity of the crisis. It was announced as an agreement to “temporarily restrict all non-essential travel.” While the two countries have started talking about how to ease the vise, the closure will last until at least June 21.

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Canada’s borders have been an endless source of pandemic consternation. The rules against non-essential travel eviscerated the tourism sector, yet for 14 months large numbers of people have continued to arrive from the United States and elsewhere, many exploiting the multitude of loopholes in the Liberal government’s hotel quarantine rules, themselves only brought in half-heartedly, in response to public pressure.

At the same time, Ottawa has insisted on imposing quarantine on fully vaccinated travellers, and on Thursday said it would do the same with Canadians who, for the sake of getting vaccinated, step even one metre across the U.S. border.

So when it comes to border enforcement, there’s been much to decry. But as rates of vaccination shoot higher, and as infection rates (hopefully) continue to fall, Canada has to start considering when to roll back travel restrictions, and how to do so without introducing variants or sparking new chains of infections.

On Wednesday, the European Union laid out its framework. The 27 EU states will reopen their borders as soon as next week to visitors from countries with very low virus counts, and other travellers who are fully vaccinated. The fully vaccinated will not have to quarantine.

Individual European states may impose tighter restrictions, and the EU further stands ready to pull an emergency brake on travel from any place with a sudden outbreak. Europe is also working to create a “digital green certificate” – a vaccine passport.

For most Canadians, quarantine-free travel to Europe this summer is unlikely, because although the percentage who have received a first shot is rising rapidly – on that score, Canada is set to overtake the U.S. on Friday – it could be several months before all those people get their second jabs.

Canadian and American officials have started talks to figure out what the arrangements should be for screening people who cross the world’s longest international border.

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A key question is whether the fully vaccinated should be allowed to bypass quarantine obligations. Knowledge of the virus is evolving but, from what is known so far, allowing the fully vaccinated to travel, without the need to spend two weeks in isolation, makes sense.

Under such a rule, Canada-U.S. travel flow would, at first, be mostly one way – owing to the much larger number of two-shot Americans. But over the summer, more and more Canadians would qualify as they got their second jabs.

As Yukon’s top doctor noted earlier this month, when he announced quarantine-free travel to and from the territory for fully vaccinated Canadians starting May 25, the approach could serve as a powerful incentive. You can be a tourist if you get your shots – but if you don’t, you can’t.

Some worry that vaccine passports, or any requirement to prove vaccination in order to travel, is an invasion of privacy. The debate often blurs the line between requiring them domestically – such as to attend a concert – versus at a border.

Keep in mind that Canada already has long-standing proof-of-vaccine rules in place for some other areas. For example, to attend school in Ontario, parents must generally prove that their children have been vaccinated against such diseases as polio and measles. Immigrants applying for permanent residency, along with some visitors, temporary workers and foreign students, must undergo a complete medical assessment before being allowed into Canada.

In the long run, proof of vaccination for travellers will hopefully become unnecessary, thanks to the pandemic being stamped out. But that’s a question for 2022 and beyond. As a bridge between now and then, and to allow travel to safely restart, Canada needs to be able to verify the vaccination status of anyone crossing the border.

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