The House

The House: Canadians are losing patience with the border closure

The Canada-U.S. border has been closed to non-essential travel for well over a year. This week, the federal government announced it's staying closed for at least another month. On both sides of the border, people are getting anxious.

The federal government says it's taking no chances. Its critics say Ottawa is taking its time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has closed the Canada-U.S. border to regular cross-border shopping trips and vacations for more than a year. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

For many Canadians, the ban on most travel to and from the United States — in place now for 15 months — borders on the excessive.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair says he gets it, even as he defends the decision to continue with the cross-border restrictions for at least another month.

"Let me acknowledge that we've heard very clearly from our border area mayors and from communities across the country that have been impacted by these restrictions. We're certainly hearing from some of the American interests as well," Blair said in an interview airing Saturday on CBC's The House.

But while the border closure has been stressful for the families kept apart by it, and awkward for the people barred from visiting vacation properties and cross-border shopping, Blair insisted that protecting Canadians' health remains the government's priority — and it won't move on the border until it's "safe to proceed."

"I want to be really clear with you and with Canadians that we rely very much on the advice we receive from our public officials, from scientists in the medical community," he said.

Save the summer, MPs say

On Monday, Blair is expected to announce when, how and to whom the border will be reopened for non-essential travel.

But patience is running thin. Frustration is building.

At this week's Liberal caucus meeting, a number of MPs representing ridings that depend on tourism and other cross-border travel called for the border to be reopened before the critical summer vacation period is gone. Those appeals went unanswered.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair talks about the government's extension of the Canada-U.S. border closure, the ArriveCAN app for travellers and criminal justice reform. 14:00

For a town like Stanstead, Quebec, which sits right on the border with Vermont, the ban on non-essential travel is having consequences that are both economic and personal.

Jeanette Sisco works in a local antique store that used to get a lot of American customers.

"It's slow," she told CBC News. "I'll be glad when they start coming back in because there were regulars every week and we haven't seen them for two years now."

Laura Wood has been separated from her 63-year-old mother, who lives just on the other side of the border past a wrought iron fence — the only physical barrier separating the two countries in that part of Stanstead.

Lives put on hold

She said that she and her mom have been visiting at the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, which straddles the border between Rock Island, Quebec and Derby Line, Vermont. There's no touching permitted, no straying across a line that seems more imaginary than real.

"It's been difficult not enjoying time with her," Wood said. She and her mother had made plans for a real visit, thinking the border would reopen next week — plans that will have to be put on hold, again.

"Yeah … she's really wanting for that to happen."

Individual Canadians aren't the only ones getting impatient.

The Business Council of Canada said the decision to extend the border ban fails to recognize the increasing number of people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

"We hope that on Monday the government will follow the advice of its own COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel that calls for the gradual easing of some border restrictions," BCC president Goldy Hyder said in a media statement released Friday.

"Canadians need a clearly articulated plan to reopen the border safely so that friends and families can be reunited and businesses can welcome back travellers."

U.S. Representative Brian Higgins of Buffalo, NY, a Democrat, is co-chair of the northern border caucus. He called the month-long extension "bullshit" in a tweet.

"Millions of Americans and Canadians are counting on our governments to work together to reach an agreement that provides a clear roadmap for reopening the border between our two nations," he said in a media statement.

"The lack of transparency surrounding these negotiations is a disservice to our constituents and the millions of residents on both sides of the border waiting to see their loved ones, visit their property and renew business ties."

Blair said the two countries are working together on a reopening plan. He acknowledged, however, that there are still some wild cards in the mix — such as the fact that travel restrictions remain in place between some provinces.

Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair says a "further easing of restrictions" will have to wait until Canada hits its vaccination benchmark. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

"Frankly, our concern is about the protection of Canadians. And so for people travelling from the U.S. or anywhere else in the world, we want to make sure that when they come to Canada, they can do so safely and don't put Canadians at risk," he said.

"But when a significant portion of this country is fully vaccinated — we think that threshold, at least on the advice so far from the public health agency, is approximately 75 per cent — that's going to set up conditions where we can move to further easing of restrictions."

The vaccination campaign is approaching that target. Until it hits the mark, the Canada-U.S. border remains a barrier — a line that can't be crossed for at least another month.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

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