The border between the U.S. and Canada has been closed to non-essential travel since March 20, 2020. Extended monthly, the closure runs until at least May 21st. However, the international crossing is not expected to reopen until at least this fall and cross border interests have been calling on the two federal governments to craft a safe reopening plan. This week officials from the North Country Chamber and the Quebec Federation of Chambers of Commerce hosted a virtual seminar on expectations for reopening the border.
Soon after the northern border closed, the Washington D.C.-based Wilson Center Canada Institute created a task force to look at the impacts of the closure and what needed to be done to reopen it. Members include former Quebec Premier Jean Charest and former Vermont Governor Jim Douglas.
This week the Quebec Federation of Chambers of Commerce and the North Country Chamber of Commerce hosted a virtual seminar on the border closure. Charles Milliard is President and CEO of the Quebec Chambers.
“Our topic is very simple yet very complex at the same time," Millard said. "We’re going to talk about the situation at the Canada-U.S. border and especially what we can expect from our leaders in the coming weeks more than a year after the closing in March 2020. So it’s been more than a year now already.”
Bank of Montreal Senior Vice President Rene Douville says cross border trade and ease of travel is expected to be the norm and not the exception along the northern border.
“Although not everyone will agree on how the U.S.-Canadian border should reopen I think there’s a general consensus that action is needed.," Douville said. "As neighbors Canada and the U.S. have strong economic, social and political ties. So it’s not surprising that people are anxious to see those barriers lifted between our countries.”
North Country Chamber President Garry Douglas added the outcome of this dilemma will determine how relationships between cross border interests continue.
“Make no mistake a wall has been placed between us on the border," Douglas said. "In the U.S. we’ve heard much over the last four years about a physical wall at the Mexican border. But a wall that is even sturdier and more exclusive in terms of its impact has actually now been placed between the U.S. and Canada that is fundamentally harming the U.S.-Canadian special relationship. And the fact that it has gone on so long has already created lasting damage that we’ll have to work long and hard to repair. Maybe we might open a few gateways in the wall as a starting point. We need to find a positive sense that everybody, both governments, are engaged in finding the way forward not just stating what the obstacles and complications are.”
Premier Charest noted the two federal governments are determined to fight COVID and reopening the border comes down to one element.
“The key is vaccination," Charest said. "We’re not going to see I think a reopening of the border until we get a level of vaccination on both sides of the border that is fairly high enough. Vaccination is key, is absolutely key. This issue’s been raised between President Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau. After a bilateral meeting in February this was part of the agenda. You know trade flows have remained fairly, worked fairly well. But there will be future issues of supply chains. But for now I think our main preoccupation is to see what are the basic conditions by which we can start allowing people to move back and forth between Canada and the United States.”
Charest adds there could be complications such as variants and the speed of vaccinations. He also believes that Canadian politics could play a role in how quickly the border reopens.
“One of the realities of Canada is that we’re looking at an election campaign in the fall probably," Charest said. "It’s a minority government. I don’t have any secrets. No one’s shared any inside information with me on this but there’s a high probability of a Canadian election, federal election, in the fall. And that will make it more difficult for Mr. Trudeau to reopen the border. Because until that campaign happens he may not want to run the risk of creating an issue in the election campaign.”
The chambers say more than 350 attended the virtual seminar on reopening the border.