After industry outcry, Ottawa agrees to clarify cross-border travel rules for autoworkers

After complaints from the auto industry, the federal government has agreed to clarify cross-border travel rules for autoworkers during the pandemic, an industry representative tells the CBC following a virtual meeting between Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and stakeholders on Tuesday.

Public safety minister promised quick review during virtual meeting with stakeholders, industry rep says

Canadian auto-parts company Martinrea says it wants greater clarity on travel rules at the border for workers. It says the travel rules are applied unevenly and it is hurting Canadian companies competing against rival U.S. suppliers. Seen here, in 2017, is a Vaughan, Ont., facility of Martinrea's Alfield Industries subsidiary. (Fred Thornhill/Reuters)

The federal government plans to clarify its pandemic travel rules for autoworkers after complaints from the industry, which says it's being hurt by ambiguity at the border.

At issue is how border agents deal with autoworkers moving between facilities in Canada and the U.S. Industry officials have expressed frustration that Canadian guards don't seem to have clear instructions, forcing some workers to quarantine when they re-enter Canada but not others, and that it risks doing economic damage.

On Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair committed to performing a quick review of the policy during a virtual meeting with auto-sector representatives, said one meeting participant, Flavio Volpe.

That development came after CBC News and other media reported on mounting annoyance in the sector, with industry representatives fuming that they had tried and failed to reach Blair for months.

Volpe, who heads Canada's Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association, said the minister opened Tuesday's meeting by expressing a desire to work with the sector to clarify the rules.

He said the sides set up a group to work on changes — and that they planned to do it quickly.

"We expect that we're going to see some substantive clarification in days, and that's very helpful," Volpe said in an interview Tuesday afternoon.

"I'm expecting specific clarification that's going to make it easier for essential automotive people to do their job. And we have that commitment from Minister Blair and from the [Canada Border Services Agency].... I think that we've broken through here."

Critical moment in the auto sector

What had the companies complaining was the alleged lack of clarity on how the industry's technical workers and executives should be treated while re-entering Canada after doing work at U.S. facilities.

They said the rules are applied inconsistently — even on the same day at the same border crossing — which has resulted in company employees being forced into quarantine.

They said this is putting Canadian auto companies at a competitive disadvantage against American rivals at a critical moment for the sector. 

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair met with Canadian auto industry representatives on Tuesday (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Companies are now competing for a wave of contracts related to a pair of developments: the ongoing emergence of electric vehicles and the new supply chains established under the updated NAFTA.

Volpe said that at the start of the meeting, the minister said essential travel for auto-parts employees and executives is not a significant new risk for public health, and that he wanted to find a solution.

Volpe said the sector is not pushing for a complete reopening of the border. "We're talking about a clarification for essential business travel," he said.

A spokeswoman for Blair, Mary-Liz Power, said the government will continue to enforce public-health protocols at the border but is open to making adjustments. 

"The government is listening to all sectors of the economy as it develops further protocols to identify and enforce restrictions for essential travellers, including technicians from the auto sector," she said in an email.

"We have been clear that our response to the COVID-19 pandemic will adapt quickly to this rapidly evolving public health threat."