When will the Canada-U.S. border reopen?

Day trips to the U.S. are a thing of the past. Canada-U.S. relations experts cautiously estimate the border could reopen in the fall, but it might be more complicated than it seems.

Experts speculate late summer or fall — but it's complicated

It's been more than a year since Canada and the U.S. barred people from non-essential travel between the two countries. With vaccinations ramping up in both countries, experts weigh in on when the border could reopen. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Travel across the Canada-U.S. border could resume by late summer or fall, according to the cautious estimates of some experts, but they say the process will be complicated. 

The border has been closed to non-essential travel like tourism and recreation since March 2020, and the closure agreement between Ottawa and Washington is expected to be renewed on May 21

The agreement makes exceptions, for example, on compassionate grounds like attending a funeral, or to apply for refugee status, and enforcement has been less than absolute.

But the question on most people's minds, says foreign policy expert Aaron Ettinger, is probably "When can I do my day trips over the border once again?

"And my answer to that is, that it's going to be a long, long time." 

Ettinger, an associate professor at Carleton University who specializes in Canadian and U.S. foreign policy, says he believes the borders will remain largely shut for at least a few more months.

It's been more than a year since Canada and the U.S. barred people from non-essential travel between the two countries. With vaccinations ramping up in both countries, experts weigh in on when the border could reopen. (Rob Gurdebeke/The Canadian Press)

"My gut tells me it's going to be [closed] at least well into the fall of 2021," he said, "because things are literally ten times worse now than they were this time last year with infection rates, with ICU admissions."

He says once both countries sort out the public health concerns, they will have to work through the politics.

"Politically, the United States and Canada would have to get on the same page … and that would take an enormous amount of diplomatic cross-border interaction," he said. 

Given how complicated their relationship is already, Ettinger says he believes the border situation won't be resolved quickly. He noted that the U.S. has vaccinated a far greater percentage of its residents than Canada.

"The U.S. may not be all that keen on letting Canadian travellers over the border ... But I would imagine that any Canadian government would want the same treatment that Canada affords American travellers." 

WATCH | A year of border closure:

One year after the Canada-U.S. land border was closed

3 years ago
Duration 7:53
One year after the Canada-U.S. land border was closed to non-essential travel, we take a look at the toll it's taken on a young family enduring the separation.

Complex relationship

Melissa Haussman, a political science professor at Carleton University, says both populations would have to achieve a certain threshold of vaccinations, and be satisfied with each other's levels before engaging in discussions.

"I think that's probably a few months off," she said. 

Further complicating matters is that Canada can't currently make its own vaccine doses. She said Canada's dependence on the U.S., among others, for vaccine supply adds a layer of economics to the already-complex political relationship.

"I would say my speculative guess is probably [reopening in] late summer, earliest, and I don't even know if that'll happen," she said.

What about quarantine rules?

The rules requiring travellers to quarantine after crossing the border will also likely change, Ettinger says, as more people are vaccinated and cases decline. 

He noted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hinted at a possible vaccine passport system last week.

"Though he didn't commit to anything, it's a signal that he sees a co-ordinated system in the not-so-distant future," Ettinger said.

"The U.S. and Canada could develop a North American vaccine passport to replace and simplify the ramshackle quarantine rules currently in place." 

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said last month it was too soon to talk about reopening the border due to the pandemic's uncertain path in the coming months. 

"For the moment, there's no active discussion [about] adjusting those measures," he said at the time.

The Public Health Agency of Canada said in an email that the federal government is "continually evaluating the impacts of border measures."

"Decisions and considerations about lifting those measures will be based on reliable scientific evidence," said the agency.

What questions are on your mind as vaccination campaigns pick up across Canada? CBC Ottawa is answering one a day this week. 

Monday: When can we start travelling overseas again?

Tuesday: When can we stop wearing masks?

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