As It Happens

29 members of U.S. Congress ask Canada to consider reopening border

Coronavirus cases may be skyrocketing in the United States, but a group of lawmakers there is asking for Canada to come to the virtual table to plan a phased reopening of the Canada-U.S. border.

Rep. Kathleen Rice said plan should be made now to reopen when time is right

In this photo taken May 17, visitors stroll through Peace Arch Historical State Park on the border with Canada, where people can walk freely at an otherwise closed border in Blaine, Wash. A group of 29 U.S. lawmakers is asking the Canadian government to enter into discussions about reopening the border closed to non-essential travel because of COVID-19. (Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press)

Coronavirus cases may be skyrocketing in the United States, but a group of lawmakers there is asking for Canada to come to the virtual table to plan a phased reopening of the Canada-U.S. border.

These 29 Congress members wrote to the Canadian government to warn that the ongoing closure — extended numerous times throughout the pandemic — are creating tension and uncertainty.

The most recent agreement to close the border is set to expire July 21. CBC News confirmed Monday that the agreement will be extended into August. 

Kathleen Rice, a Democratic representative from New York, is among those calling for a phased reopening of the border. She spoke with As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal about the issue on Friday. Here is part of their conversation. 

Representative Rice, is now really the right time to talk about potentially reopening the border given the situation with COVID-19 in the U.S.?

Obviously, we're seeing a spike in some cases across the country, but I think that we have to … begin the conversation about how we intend to roll out an eventual reopening of the border because we know that day is going to come. So I think it's better that we just start to … get all of our health experts together, all of the relevant parties together, to have a conversation, understanding that the most important thing to prioritize is the safety of our communities as we try to minimize health risks.

Rep. Kathleen Rice, a Democrat from New York, seen in the basement of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15, 2018, is one of the lawmakers who signed the letter. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

But we also are trying to recognize the importance of restarting economic activity. And we have no closer economic partner than Canada to our north. The important social and economic partnership between our two nations means that we need to develop a clear pathway forward.

But what would you say to Canadians who find even the idea of reopening the border frightening when they see the numbers rising every day in the United States and mixed messages from leadership?

I understand it was a recent poll that found that 81 per cent of Canadians are in favour of these restrictions remaining in place at the border. Listen, I get it. I'm not suggesting that we open the border right now. But what I would say to Canadians is, there is so much cross-border activity that we owe it to both Canadians and Americans that rely on border crossing … to at least begin to craft a comprehensive framework for phased reopening of the border based on facts and science. 

Again, I understand why some in Canada are apprehensive about it. Your country has been much better at managing this crisis than we have. I've been saying for months that we need a federal strategy for testing and containment of the virus, but we've unfortunately had no leadership from our administration in this regard.

The letter that you and your colleagues signed warns about uncertainties and tensions from the repeated renewal of this closure. What kind of uncertainties and tensions are you talking about?

I think that what was meant by that is that it just seems like it's just a rubber stamp every 30 days. There's no consideration taken as to, or the concern is that people don't feel like … the border is ever going to open again. And so our goal was just to show people on both sides … that we're being thoughtful about reopening the border.

It's not going to happen today. It's not going to happen tomorrow. But it's important that we at least start the conversation.… So develop a plan with consultation from public health experts for a reopening plan using specific metrics that must be met first.

Rice told As It Happens she understands Canadians' reticence about an open border given rapidly escalating coronavirus cases in the U.S. but says there needs to be a strategic plan for reopening that helps establish metrics for determining when and how to do so. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

Canada's Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland responded to the letter by saying that the Canadian government's priority is the health and safety of Canadians, and she thinks the closures have worked well. What would you say to Ms. Freeland?

Well, I would say that she's right. I mean, look at the facts, your numbers. Canada has contained this virus much better than we have. Obviously, we have more people, so that is a factor as well. So I understand the response. I don't want to sound like I'm being tone deaf. I understand where the government is. I understand where everyday Canadians are.

I just simply think it's important for us to begin to have the conversation so that any reopening, when it happens — not if, but when it happens — is going to be one that's based on facts, science, the well-being of all of our citizens and the eventual reigniting of economic activity between our two countries.

How long before realistically you think it will reopen?

I think it depends on how quickly some of the hot spots here in our country begin to get the virus under control. We've got Texas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia.… So I can't really give you a time frame, but I just look at this and I think … let's not waste this time, because if we are able to, within the next two, three, four months — especially in this country — we're able to across the board, get this virus under control, it would be foolhardy to start then at that time having the conversation.

Because we know who we have to talk to from a scientific background, a health background, business background, educational background, to figure out how we can come up with a plan that can be imposed once the time is right.

Written by Brandie Weikle and Kevin Robertson with files from Ryan Patrick Jones. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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