Canada eyeing multi-stage approach to reopening the border to travellers

Canadian officials envision a multi-phase reopening of the border that would begin with fully vaccinated travellers being allowed to enter starting this summer. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alluded to some details of the plan Monday. Talks with the U.S. have ramped up as criticism of Canada's restrictions escalates.

Talks with the U.S. have ramped up as criticisms of restrictions escalate

The Peace Bridge and the Canadian border are seen from Buffalo, N.Y., on April 22. Pressure is building on the U.S. side to get travel moving. (Lindsay DeDario/Reuters)

Canadian officials are looking at a multi-phase approach to reopening the border that would begin with allowing fully vaccinated travellers to enter starting this summer.

The pace of Canada-U.S. discussions about reopening has intensified lately, as more people in both countries are vaccinated and as frustration grows on the American side over the continued border closure.

The broad themes of those conversations were described to CBC News by several border town mayors who have been consulted on the talks, and by one federal official.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed two key elements of the likely reopening plan in public remarks Monday: that the reopening will happen in stages and that the first travellers entering Canada will have to be fully vaccinated.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada's relatively low COVID-19 case counts and high rate of vaccination will make the country an appealing destination for tourists. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"We are looking at how we're going to start welcoming up tourists in a phased way as the numbers come down in Canada, as the numbers start to come down in the United States and elsewhere around the world," Trudeau said in remarks reported by The Canadian Press.

One example of a scenario being envisioned for a first phase would be to allow vaccinated travellers to avoid quarantine if they have a negative COVID test.  

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What's still being worked out

Several aspects of the reopening plan remain up in the air.

The first is the reopening date itself: Public Safety Minister Bill Blair told a group of border mayors in a meeting last month that it was uncertain whether the first phase could happen in late June, when the current border restrictions expire.

An official aware of the Canada-U.S. talks, who asked to remain anonymous, said he doubts a June reopening is likely and suggested July would be a likelier starting date for the first phase.

Other technical details still have to be worked out, such as the form proof of vaccination would take. The same official said that proof would require, at a minimum, a vaccination card and perhaps another form of evidence.

That leads to another significant possibility — an asymmetrical reopening of the Canada-U.S. border, with each country applying different rules.

Different countries, different rules? 

Take proof of vaccination, for example — as with several other aspects of the pandemic, it's become a politically charged and partisan issue in the U.S.

Some Republican governors have passed laws preventing demands for proof of vaccination on their territory. President Joe Biden has said he will not create a federal vaccine passport.

The official familiar with the talks says there's a chance the countries might have different border standards regarding vaccination.

Life is increasingly returning to normal in the U.S., as seen by the full stands at the Indy 500 on May 30. Some American politicians say there's no reason to keep the border sealed. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters)

The possibility of different rules came up in a consultation session late last month between Blair and Ontario border-town mayors.

One municipal mayor said she hopes the travel standards will be as simple and as similar as possible in both countries.

Bernadette Clement, mayor of Cornwall, Ont., said she hopes to avoid a patchwork that creates confusion and backlogs at the border.

Mayor at Blair meeting: 'I want a plan'

She said she told Blair that, above all else, and after 15 months of confusion for communities like hers, she wants to see a roadmap for reopening.

"I want a plan. I want to see a plan," she said in an interview.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair told border town mayors that talks were ramping up with the U.S. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

"These conversations every month are exhausting. Some people will like the plan, some people will dislike the plan. But let's at least get a plan out there so that we can start talking with our own communities about something concrete ... Put in some timeline."

Another participant in the meeting said Blair left open the possibility of a late-June start to the reopening but was not definitive.

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said the minister said there were ongoing discussions with the U.S., including with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

American officials have denied reports that they plan to unilaterally reopen their side of the border on June 21 whether Canada agrees or not.

Americans increasingly annoyed

But it is clear that American politicians are increasingly annoyed with the slower approach preferred by Ottawa.

That growing frustration is bipartisan.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer has called for a reopening. New York Democrat Brian Higgins says it's not right to allow travel for NHL players and not for people separated from their loved ones.

Canada will allow NHL players to travel during the playoffs under loosened quarantine rules. Some American politicians say it's unfair that others can't. (Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters)

A senior Republican has accused the Trudeau government of foot-dragging. In a letter to Mayorkas, congresswoman Elise Stefanik dubbed the current measures logic-defying.

She called it unfair that Canadians can fly into the U.S. and get vaccinated, while fully vaccinated Americans who own homes in Canada can't even go see their homes.

Without a deal by June 21, she said, the U.S. should just start reopening alone and allow Canadians with property, boats and business interests to enter or use U.S. airports for overseas travel.

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie has blasted Canada's approach in different recent interviews on CNN and Fox News.

He called it "ridiculous" and "wrong" for Canadians to get vaccinated in the States and receive vaccine shipments from the U.S. while barring Americans from entering Canada.

"How about Prime Minister Trudeau, being a good neighbour and a good friend to us, opening up his border to people who are vaccinated?" Christie told CNN last month. 

"It's wrong for him not to do it. And it sends the wrong signal for President Biden to sit by and allow that to happen is wrong, too." 

He accused Biden of weakness in not publicly calling out Canada's refusal to relax travel rules.

Canada now has a higher percentage of its population with a single vaccine dose than does the U.S., but the share of the U.S. population that's fully vaccinated is nearly six times higher.

With 43 per cent of the total U.S. population and 53 per cent of American adults fully vaccinated, life has been returning to normal in the U.S., with workplaces, bars, restaurants, sporting events and concert halls increasingly full.

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