The Current

Testing, contact tracing crucial to reopen U.S.-Canada border, says Obama's former acting labor secretary

Weighing up the impact on the economy, and the risk of spreading infection, what will it take to reopen the Canada-U.S. border? Former acting U.S. Secretary of Labor Seth Harris and former Minister of Foreign Affairs John Manley join Matt Galloway to discuss.

Border restrictions extended another 30 days

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Tuesday that border restrictions between Canada and the U.S. were being extended for another 30 days. (Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press)
Listen19:21

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As Canada and the U.S. extend COVID-19 border restrictions, a labour and employment expert says it will take comprehensive testing and contact tracing to get the world's largest unprotected border open again. 

"We're going to need to hire tens of thousands of contact tracers to make sure we know who has been exposed to an infected individual," said Seth Harris, former acting U.S. secretary of labor under the Obama administration.

"Our national government really, desperately needs to step up and put in place a national testing and contact tracing system," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

The test-and-trace approach is not being applied on a national scale in either country, but Harris says it would be key to building a "safe system," so both Canada and the U.S. "can open up the border and be comfortable that we're not exposing one another to grave risk."

Both countries would also need to be confident that the public is using PPE and adhering to physical distancing measures, he added.

"We know what's necessary in order to stay safe, but we have to apply those rules when we're crossing the border, as well as when we're operating at home."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced the Canada-U.S. border will remain closed to non-essential travel — in part because the provinces expressed a "clear desire" to keep it closed due to the risk of COVID-19 cases moving north. 2:17

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the border restrictions were being extended for another 30 days beyond the intial expiry date of May 21. The two countries agreed in March to temporarily close the border to non-essential travel, while keeping it open to commercial traffic and essential workers who cross for work.

Trudeau said the U.S. was "completely open" to extending the closure.

But as President Donald Trump has appeared keen to ease lockdown restrictions and get the economy moving, Harris says the president's rhetoric offers "a false choice."

"The idea that we either open up in an unsafe way, or we stay closed and we expose people to really egregious unemployment and poverty — those are not the only two choices," he said.

"The third choice is to open up in a safe way, in a smart way, in a way that keeps workers from getting infected and sick and dying."

The port entrance to the Detroit-Windsor tunnel. Many Canadian healthcare workers continue to cross the border to work in the U.S. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

What if U.S. wants to open before Canada?

Ottawa could object if the U.S. tried to reopen the border before Canada was ready, said former deputy prime minister John Manley.

"We are sovereign on that, we do get to decide," said Manley, who was minister of foreign affairs and minister of finance under Jean Chretien, and was also president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada.  

If a disagreement resulted in the U.S. trying to close the border entirely as leverage, the Canadian government would have the means to "deal with that in a very direct and immediate manner," he said.

He explained that includes "health-care workers who are vital to maintaining the well-being of Americans in a number of border cities."

"We are mutually dependent both commercially and other ways," he said.

"I'm personally not worried about some kind of offensive action being taken by the United States on this."

There is uncertainty over containing the spread of COVID-19 in Canada if the border is reopened too soon, says Craig Janes, director of the School of Public Health and Health Systems at University of Waterloo. 5:51

From a U.S. perspective, Harris says Trudeau had shown "backbone" when dealing with Trump.

"I don't think Canada or any other country should be bullied into making decisions that are bad for the Canadian people, simply because our president is dyspeptic," he told Galloway.

"I think the right thing to do is do what's right for the Canadian people," he said.

"I think most leaders in the United States will make the right choice for the American people, and those will end up being the same choices."


Written by Padraig Moran, with files from CBC News. Produced by Paul MacInnis and Howard Goldenthal.

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