Border Reopening

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Easing of restrictions to non-U.S. travellers into Canada unlikely to be met with Trump backlash, could pave way for reopening of 49th parallel, say experts

By Neil Moss      
‘The core operating ideal within … Ottawa is evidence-based policymaking and there are clearly other jurisdictions out there besides the U.S. that have done a better job in containing [the virus],’ says Eric Miller.
A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair wouldn’t say if the government is exploring easing restrictions to non-U.S. travellers to Canada before the Canada-U.S. border is reopened to normal operations. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

With no progress towards reopening the Canada-U.S. border as the United States continues to be overwhelmed by COVID-19, experts say easing restrictions to allow non-U.S. foreign nationals to travel to Canada could be the first step in a phased reopening of the 49th parallel.

Despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s forceful defence of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, former diplomats told The Hill Times that a reopening with non-U.S. countries could take place without an Oval Office backlash as the restrictive immigration policies of the Trump administration favours a closed Canada-U.S. border.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of countries—particularly Europe and parts of East Asia—that Canada is going to open to far before they open to the U.S.,” said trade consultant Eric Miller, president of Rideau Potomac Strategy Group who worked on the Beyond the Border Action Plan, which sought to make Canada-U.S. border crossings more efficient.

Canada has been closed to non-U.S. nationals since mid-March due to the pandemic. An order was extended until Aug. 31 preventing non-American international travellers from coming to Canada. The restrictions aren’t a blanket ban, as some international travellers are allowed to enter Canada as long as they have a quarantine plan.

Mr. Miller said the Trump administration is unlikely to make a big deal of a Canadian reopening with Europe or East Asia because they don’t see having restrictions on the 49th parallel as a bad thing.

The Canadian government has restricted travel from non-U.S. countries since mid-March. Photograph courtesy of Flickr/Dan Zen

“If Canada lets in French and German and other EU citizens or lets Japanese citizens in, then that’s considered Canada’s business and it’s not something that I think the White House is going to react very negatively to,” said Mr. Miller, a former senior policy adviser at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

“The Trump administration sees a narrow path to victory [in the Nov. 3 presidential election] by doubling down on their core messages and part of doubling down on the core messages … is that [they] have the borders under control,” he said.

Despite some pressure from U.S. lawmakers who represent border regions, there hasn’t been a great push to allow Canadians and Americans to freely cross the border, with Canadian public opinion siding strongly against a return to normalcy as COVID-19 cases in the United States top five million with more than 160,000 deaths.

The Canada-U.S. border has been closed to non-essential crossers by joint agreement between the two governments since March 21. The initial agreement closed the border for 30 days, but the closure has been extended every month since, with the current closure ending on Aug. 21 if there isn’t another extension.

“The core operating ideal within the civil service in Ottawa is evidence-based policymaking and there are clearly other jurisdictions out there besides the U.S. that have done a better job in containing [the virus],” Mr. Miller said.

He said an easing of restrictions could be done based on the performance of individual countries in addressing COVID-19, which Canadian embassies around the world can help monitor on the ground.

He added that a potential reopening with some European countries could begin the conversation on how Canada can reopen its borders to the international community to establish the principles needed and work through the unresolved issues that will be helpful when it becomes a possibility to have a reopening of the Canada-U.S. border.

“If we wait for this to magically happen on its own or to go away, we’re going to be waiting a long time,” Mr. Miller said.

Experts say U.S. President Donald Trump’s reaction to a potential easing of Canadian restrictions to non-U.S. restrictions will be muted as his administration is in favour of border restrictions. White House photograph by Andrea Hanks

A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair (Scarborough Southwest, Ont.) wouldn’t say if the federal government would consider easing restrictions on non-U.S. nationals entering Canada before reopening the Canada-U.S. border.

“We brought forward significant restrictions at our borders to keep Canadians safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. We all have a shared responsibility to flatten the curve, and our government continues to advise Canadians to avoid non-essential travel outside of Canada and avoid all cruise ship travel. We will continue to do what is necessary to keep Canadians safe and will base our decisions on the best public health evidence available,” press secretary Mary-Liz Power said in an email.

Canada is one of 14 countries that have been allowed to travel to the EU since the beginning of July.

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson, vice-president at Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said it is possible that Canada could open up to some European countries that Canada feels has control over the pandemic.

“We’ll probably open up to some countries, but not all,” said Mr. Robertson, adding that it would make sense to open the Canada-U.S. border in a similar fashion with different regions reopening at different times.

“I think we are more likely to open to other countries before we open to the United States’ full border,” he said, noting that won’t happen for some time yet.

Mr. Robertson said the constant communication between Canadian and American officials allows for neither side to be surprised by developments in the other country.

In those conversations, Mr. Robertson said Canadian officials would be briefing their American counterparts on Canada’s thinking on easing restrictions to non-U.S. travellers and they would give advance notice if Canada made the decision to reopen travel with a country before the restrictions were loosened with the U.S.

Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., said if Canada does ease restrictions for non-U.S. countries, there would be an understanding by American officials that a land border and an air border are two distinct considerations.

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson says Canadian officials are likely having frequent conversations with their American counterparts and would give them advance notice if restrictions are eased. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

“Other borders are just so qualitatively different that the U.S. doesn’t see it in the same category [as the Canada-U.S. border],” Mr. Sands noted, although he said there could be a negative reaction from American officials if Canada eases restrictions on a country that is handling the pandemic worse than the United States.

Mr. Sands said there is a medical advantage for the closure of the Canada-U.S. border to prevent Americans without health coverage crossing into Canada in large numbers or Canadians crossing into the United States en masse if the U.S. develops a vaccine before they do.

But he said there should be clearer signs of how the two governments plan to have a phased reopening for the Canada-U.S. border.

He said a loosening of restrictions between Canada and a non-U.S. country could be used to influence how Canada and the United States move forward, adding that a a previously tested solution will be more palatable for Americans to accept amid the hyper-partisan reaction to the handling of the pandemic by the Trump administration and the fast-approaching U.S. presidential election.