Canada-U.S. border has been shut down for a year — and there's no reopening plan

The one-year anniversary of the tightening at the Canada-U.S. border has arrived. Pressure is growing for governments to explain their plan for reopening. But the truth is: There is no plan.

One-year anniversary of travel restrictions arrives with no sign of a road map for returning to normal

Pressure is mounting, from U.S. lawmakers, border communities, and industry, to at least explain what the policy for reopening the Canada-U.S. border will ultimately look like. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

The one-year anniversary of the quasi-shutdown of the Canada-U.S. border is here — and there's no end in sight to disruptions that have affected lives, businesses, and communities touching the world's so-called longest undefended frontier.

Once again, the tightening has been extended for another month, through April 21, as it has each month since the pandemic crashed onto this continent last year

Once again, the people most affected are wondering what the plan is for reopening and what sorts of public-health stats would allow regular travel to resume.

The truth is: There is no plan.

Conversations with officials in both countries in recent days revealed that, even as vaccinations ramp up, neither government has defined what it will take to reopen the border.

They say there's no secret document laying out such benchmarks — such as, for example, the number of vaccine doses required for a return to normal, or the number of coronavirus cases reported.

The official line remains that it's still too soon to talk about reopening because the virus remains a serious threat. There are still too few vaccinated people; case levels are still concerning; virus variants pose unknown perils.

The border restrictions have hit some communities hard. Seen here, on the day of the initial border clampdown on March 21, 2020, are houses across a bridge spanning the border in Lubec, Maine. (John Morris/Reuters)

"I can see the light at the end of the tunnel," said one Canadian official, who asked to remain anonymous.

"In the near term, however, people should expect the border measures [to continue]."

What that means is an extension of the spotty new status quo for cross-border travel — which has dropped about 90 per cent, though freer movement is allowed for certain workers, and certain humanitarian reasons, and certain modes of transport.

U.S. lawmakers eye White House proposal

But there's a push for greater long-term clarity. In the terminology of the financial world, what some are asking for is forward guidance to help people plan.

Among those demanding details are two dozen members of the U.S. Congress from border states. They wrote to U.S. President Joe Biden requesting a plan for reopening the border, in gradual phases, tied to public-health metrics.

One leader of that initiative is Brian Higgins, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Buffalo, N.Y. 

Brian Higgins, a member of the U.S. Congress from Buffalo, N.Y., has been demanding clarity on the border reopening policy since last year. He now says he's hoping to see a gradual reopening from May to July. (U.S. Congress/The Associated Press)

In a recent interview in his office, Higgins reflected on the ties between countries. He pointed to an acoustic guitar in his office and noted that he'd just been playing a Gordon Lightfoot tune; he reminisced about how easy it used to be, in the old days, before the border tightened with the Sept. 11 attacks, to drive across to Ontario, park his car, and go for a jog along the waterfront.

U.S. lawmaker wants border partly reopened by end of May

Higgins doesn't want these restrictions lingering much longer. His goal: to have the border partly reopened by U.S. Memorial Day, May 31, then fully reopened by July 4, under certain health-related conditions. 

"I don't see any reason why loved ones who have been separated for a year; property owners; people that live in Buffalo that own a cottage in Crystal Beach, Ont.; business owners — why shouldn't they be able to cross the border safely," he said. 

"So long as they certify that they're going to do certain things: certify that you've been vaccinated, certify that you're going to wear a mask, certify that you're going to practise good physical distancing."

WATCH | This U.S. congressman wants the border open by July 4:

This U.S. congressman wants the Canada-U.S. border open by July 4

2 years ago
Duration 2:24
Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins told Power & Politics that, with vaccines on the horizon, he'd like to see U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau work toward opening the U.S.-Canada border by the Fourth of July.

Higgins has been talking to the Biden administration as it works on its own policy as part of an executive order signed on the president's first full day in office.

The White House policy is weeks behind schedule. However, Higgins hopes the new administration might be able to draft up some ideas soon and propose them to Canada.

Human relationships have been upended as a result of the border restrictions. Seen here is Marie Filuk of White Rock, B.C., visiting her son and grandchildren, who live in Bellingham, Wash., on Mother's Day 2020 along the Canada-U.S. border. (Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters)

Canadian officials aren't actually rejecting the notion of a phased reopening from May to July; they're just calling such reopening talk premature.

Some members of one critical Canadian industry — the auto sector — are growing impatient.

Auto sector gets angry: 'It is chaos'

They say Canada's industry risks damaging itself at a critical moment, as parts companies across the continent compete to obtain contracts during the shift to new supply chains in the updated NAFTA, and the evolution to electric vehicles.

One auto-parts company chairman, Rob Wildeboer of Martinrea International, said it's actually getting harder now to cross the border than it was early in the pandemic. 

He said some executives or technicians get sent into quarantine when they enter Canada, and some don't, and that sometimes the rules are applied differently on the same day at the same border crossing. 

Canadian auto-parts company Martinrea says it wants greater clarity. It says the travel rules are applied unclearly and unevenly and it's 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)

"It is chaos. It is chaos, and it's uncertainty," Wildeboer said in an interview. 

"Everyone in our industry is confused.… If we had a meeting of all the members of the auto industry today, like this afternoon, and we had an hour, we'd spend 55 minutes talking about the border."

He said border guards lack clear guidance from Ottawa, and it's hurting Canadian parts companies, who are competing against American rivals whose staff and executives can travel freely to meet their U.S. customers.

His industry is pleading for Ottawa to, at least in the short term, recognize auto employees as essential, so that they don't wind up in quarantine.

But Flavio Volpe of Canada's Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association said repeated attempts to get Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to talk went unanswered, as did a letter sent five months ago.

"That's very frustrating," Volpe said in an interview a week ago.

The association can meet with the prime minister, deputy prime minister, Mexican cabinet members and White House officials but can't reach Blair, he said.

"I can get a hold of the White House — but not Public Safety. … [It's] crazy."

The industry and government are now talking.

Days after that CBC News interview with Volpe, he and other industry representatives met with Blair. Volpe said the meeting was constructive and that Blair promised to clarify the travel rules for auto workers.

Volpe said the government has a responsibility to shed some light on its longer-term plans:  "Show us the road map, just like the provinces got a road map on how they go from red to orange to yellow."

This is what some U.S. lawmakers, including Higgins, tried pushing for last year: clarity on how a phased-in reopening would work.

But the idea was rebuffed and Higgins' social-media feed was inundated with ridicule from a number of Canadians. Higgins now says he doesn't blame Canadians for that reaction.

Cross-border traffic into Canada is down 90 per cent during the pandemic. Travel is allowed for certain workers, and for certain humanitarian reasons. The restrictions are noted here on U.S. customs vehicles, at the border crossing at the Thousand Islands Bridge in Ontario last fall. (Lars Hagberg/Reuters)

At the time, the U.S. was in the midst of a devastating second wave of COVID-19 cases, and the country's COVID-19 death rate is still nearly three times higher than Canada's.

He blames the former Trump administration for not taking the virus seriously enough and for not engaging Canada earlier.

American outlook brightening fast

Now the tide is turning. 

Vaccination rates are surging in the U.S. Biden has said he expects enough vaccines for every American by May 31 and hopes life might be close to normal by Independence Day, July 4.

This year has been particularly disruptive in border communities.

In Massena, N.Y., across from Cornwall, Ont., the town supervisor said the absence of Canadians has been felt in places like the nearby Malone, N.Y., ski resort.

"No Canadian traffic — it hurts a lot," Steven O'Shaughnessy said.

He said people in his community just keep hearing — month after month — about shutdown extensions, but never about the longer-term plan.

Border communities anxiously await news

Across the border, the mayor of Cornwall referred to the human impact, recounting the story of one woman across the border who struggled to be with her dying mother in Cornwall.

"Those are the things that hit home," said Bernadette Clement.

One thing people are hungry for, she said, is information.

"I think it's not clear," Clement said.

"We're at the point where we're thinking [reopening is] going to happen sometime this year, potentially. Except we don't know what the metrics are.… What's the process?"


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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