Ambarish Chandra: We did okay on borders. We could have done better.

Trudeau has squandered Canada’s valuable open border with the U.S. in a short-term effort to gain political support.

By: Ambarish Chandra

When Justin Trudeau called the election, he was implicitly asking to be judged on the Liberal government’s handling of the pandemic. One of the primary areas under federal jurisdiction in pandemic management is our borders. So, was Canada’s track record on this file over the past 18 months any better than that of other countries ? The answers are mixed, suggesting some correct early decisions, but terrible ones more recently.

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Early on, this government closed the border to non-essential travel, a move that I supported, both due to the astronomically high case numbers in the U.S. and the uncertainty regarding the course of the pandemic. It was sensible to limit casual visits and shopping trips across the border, which comprise the majority of cross-border car trips. It was especially appropriate to limit travel from U.S. border states with very high virus transmission, though the lack of defined reopening metrics at the time would later come back to haunt the government.

The government also correctly resisted calls from some commentators to “be more like Australia” by imposing almost impassable borders for citizens and non-citizens alike. Key to Australia’s early success is that its freight arrives by air or sea, both of which involve largely automated unloading processes with little human interaction. By contrast, Canada’s supply chains rely on the nearly 15,000 trucks that enter daily from the United States, each with a human driver. Quarantining these drivers would be impossible, while the prospect of multiple rounds of testing would either risk drivers refusing to come, or else cause massive lines at borders and the grinding to a halt of our supply chains.

And in fact, far from being a success, Australia’s pandemic response has morphed into a horror story: citizens banned from entering or leaving the country, troops patrolling suburbs, residents allowed to leave their homes for no more than one hour daily, schools closed for over six months — all while cases continue to escalate. We should be thankful that Canada is indeed not “more like Australia.”

Where this government went terribly wrong was in its response, in January 2021, to the second wave. Ontario Premier Doug Ford was desperate to blame something for his province’s disastrous handling of the pandemic and decided to scapegoat international travellers. He insisted that foreign travel was driving case numbers, with absolutely no evidence, and demanded that the federal government do something. This was the moment when Trudeau should have held firm, asserted federal jurisdiction over the border, and told Ford to stop fear mongering.

Unfortunately, Trudeau decided to pander instead, perhaps encouraged by polls showing rising fear of foreigners among Canadians, and the importance of Ontario ridings in the upcoming election. The government imposed strict measures designed to create the appearance of doing something: hotel and home quarantines, multiple rounds of testing, encouraging neighbours to snitch on recently returned travellers, and fanning the flames of an ugly nativism.

Many of these measures were later revealed to be redundant or even counterproductive; the quarantine hotels themselves became hotspots, for example. By the spring, the much faster U.S. vaccine rollout led to lower cases in that country while Canada continued to insist that vaccinations did not lower the threat of transmission. Despite the recommendations of its own expert panel, the government refused to eliminate hotel quarantines, shorten home quarantines, or exempt children from these requirements.

The government finally opened the border to fully vaccinated Canadians in July, but absurdly refused to do so until August for vaccinated Americans, and September for everyone else. Even when rules were relaxed, the lack of planning and advance announcements caught both travellers and businesses by surprise. Bizarrely, when our borders finally reopened to all vaccinated travellers last week, Canadians barely took notice.

The costs of the government’s dithering and pandering are numerous. There is the obvious cruelty to families separated from loved ones, and the massive hit to businesses that rely on foreign travel, who had to endure a second lost summer. But the longer-term effects are likely to be even more costly. By so obviously politicizing the border, Trudeau has opened the door to future arbitrary closures, by both the U.S. and Canada. Now that border closures have been normalized, a future U.S. president may well decide to stop travel in response to any number of real or perceived threats: natural disasters, terrorist attacks or another pandemic. If such closures are extended to commercial traffic, even temporarily, the effect on Canada will be devastating.

Indeed, the current U.S. policy of allowing Canadians to fly, but not drive, to the U.S. is absurd, and surely driven by political considerations. In the past, Canada would have been able to lobby against such absurdities. But how can we do so now, when our own government has clearly exploited the border for political purposes?

It has been long-standing, nonpartisan policy in Ottawa to always support freer travel and trade and to oppose knee-jerk American efforts to thicken the border. After the September 11 terror attacks, for example, the immediate U.S. response was to close the land border, which would have devastated Canadian businesses and their supply chains. It took concerted pressure by Jean Chrétien to lift these restrictions. Indeed, Chrétien, as well as his successors Paul Martin and Stephen Harper, understood the importance of an open border, and successfully lobbied for Canadian exemptions to U.S. passport requirements, Buy America provisions, and other measures.

Would the other parties have been better on the border? Quite possibly not, given that Erin O’TooleJagmeet Singh, and Yves-François Blanchet are all on record calling for even more draconian border measures than the ones this government imposed. But this election should be about the Liberal government’s established record, not the potential mistakes of the opposition.  

So yes, the outcome could have been worse, and at least Canada seems to have avoided Australia’s fate. But it could have been much better. Trudeau has squandered Canada’s valuable open border with the U.S. in a short-term effort to gain political support. By normalizing border closures in such a cavalier way, Canada will surely pay a price in the future.

Ambarish Chandra is an Economics professor at the University of Toronto whose current research examines travel across the U.S.-Canada border.


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