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U.S. politicians fume over Canada's extended border restrictions

American politicians are fuming over the latest Canadian border restrictions. One member of Congress calls the latest extension "bullshit," illogical and immoral. Several are pressing U.S. President Joe Biden to just ignore Canada and reopen the U.S. side of the border unilaterally.

Members of Congress urge Biden to reopen border unilaterally

The Canada-U.S. border as seen at the Peace Bridge from Buffalo, N.Y. New York state is the No. 1 source of U.S. travel to Canada and politicians there are especially annoyed that the border remains closed. (Lindsay DeDario/Reuters)

American politicians who are normally friendly to Canada are fuming over news that the border will remain closed to non-essential travel for at least another month.

They decried the latest prolongation on Friday as overly cautious, unfounded in science and unclear.

"I wish there was a more artful way to say this — but this is bullshit," said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democratic congressman whose Buffalo, N.Y., district touches the border.

"It's arbitrary. It doesn't follow the science, it doesn't follow the facts, it doesn't follow the data."

Higgins's state is the No. 1 source of cross-border travellers to Canada, and 62 per cent of New York state's adults have been fully vaccinated; COVID-19 cases and deaths there have plunged.

And he's not typically a firebrand on cross-border affairs. 

Higgins speaks frequently about his connections to Canada; resisted when the last administration threatened a new NAFTA without Canada; and urged the current administration to send more vaccines.

'Caving' to Trudeau

Now, politicians from both U.S. parties are pressing President Joe Biden to just move ahead unilaterally — and fling open America's border to Canadian travel.

A senior Republican from New York, Rep. Elise Stefanik, demanded a unilateral reopening in a recent letter to the administration — urging Biden to get tougher with his Canadian counterpart.

Biden "missed a huge opportunity at the G7 summit to stand up for America and deliver a plan to safely reopen," Stefanik said in a statement Friday. "Instead, caving to Prime Minister Trudeau's incessant desire to delay."

In Ottawa, one official said Friday that there hasn't actually been much pressure from Biden's administration to reopen immediately. 

Rep. Brian Higgins, right, a Democrat from New York, isn't known as a firebrand. But he's steaming at Ottawa's latest extension of the closure. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

But Biden is getting pressure at home. 

That pressure is coming from powerful senators. For his part, Higgins has also been calling and writing to administration officials to reopen the U.S. unilaterally.

He says he believes the administration is considering a unilateral move but that bureaucratic inertia is bogging it down.

"Nobody's making a decision. You speak to [U.S.] cabinet secretaries, everybody says the right thing and then everybody has to bring it to a task force," Higgins said.

"We need someone to make a decision. The person to make that decision is the president of the United States and the prime minister of Canada. They're men of good will."

Another lawmaker from New York, Republican Rep. Chris Jacobs, introduced a bill to demand details of what the national governments have been telling each other behind the scenes. 

The White House declined to comment on the Canadian announcement and said it has working groups discussing the border reopening with Canada and other countries.

U.S. President Joe Biden is under pressure to just reopen the U.S. border. One Republican accused him of 'caving' to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at this month's G7 summit, seen here. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

'Incensed' over hockey

Higgins calls it immoral that NHL players got a travel exemption for the playoffs while fully vaccinated people can't cross to see their loved ones or their property.

"People should be incensed by that," he said in an interview. 

He's especially annoyed at the lack of clarity about the reopening plan and questions such as how vaccinations will be recognized. Higgins said these details should have been dealt with months ago.

Canada has said it wants 75 per cent of its population to have one dose of vaccine and for 20 per cent to be fully vaccinated before reopening travel. 

As of Friday, those thresholds have either been met or will soon be, for those aged 12 and older. 

One MP who works on Canada-U.S. issues says he's been hearing from his peers in Congress over the last few days.

"We've had a few phone calls," said Randy Hoback, a Saskatchewan MP who sits on House of Commons committees related to trade and U.S.-Canada affairs.

"They're just trying to understand the resistance here and why we're not moving forward faster. They're trying to understand why there isn't a game plan put in place that people can look at and say, 'OK, that makes sense.'" 

The current discussion is a reversal of the usual dynamic between the countries.

For decades, especially since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it's been Canadians pleading with Americans to keep the border open. 

Post-9/11 safety measures slowed travel and trade and Canadians were constantly pushing back against false reports of terrorists entering from Canada.

Higgins' district includes the tourism-reliant Niagara Falls, seen here on the Canadian side in this photo from last summer's abnormally quiet travel season. (Colin Perkel/CP)

Canada's former ambassador Gary Doer would attend meetings in Washington carrying pages of the 9/11 commission report in his suit pocket — to show people the attackers hadn't come from Canada.

He says he's hopeful things can get back to normal at the border in relatively short order. Doer believes we'll see an announcement soon about when, and how, the reopening will work.

"I think we can do it," Doer said in an interview. "I'm very confident we're going to move quickly in the next couple of weeks."

Will there be any lingering ill will from the current disruption?

Higgins says things will get better. 

He blames the former Trump administration for poisoning relations in recent years, but said the bonds between the countries are too deep.

"We'll recover," he said. "We love Canada; we love Canadians." 

One business group said it speaks volumes, however, that Higgins is sounding angry these days. 

"You have to go out of your way to tick off Brian Higgins," said Maryscott Greenwood of the Canadian American Business Council.

"It's too bad that he has to reach that point of exasperation before people will pay attention … It makes very little sense to alienate your closest champions." 

She added a prediction: That the U.S. border will reopen to Canadian travel soon, either on June 22, or at the latest on July 22 — no matter what Canada does.

"The U.S. isn't going to wait forever," Greenwood said. "Because the U.S. is ready. The U.S. is ready today."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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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