Our powerful American neighbor is demanding that the border reopens as quickly as possible. But public health experts, and the Canadian people, are in much less of a hurry. A fine dilemma for the Trudeau government.
On June 21, no less than four key federal ministers summoned the press to announce the next easing of restrictions on travel to the United States. The ministers of health, public safety, immigration and intergovernmental affairs took turns at the microphone.
But they pretty much had nothing to say.
Beyond the easing that had already been largely telegraphed — notably, the possibility that fully-vaccinated Canadians could avoid the 14-day quarantine upon returning from abroad — the ministers were deliberately sparing on the details. All of the journalists repeated the same question, though formulated differently: What clear criteria will guide the reopening plan, and how will they be evaluated? At no point in the press conference was there the least semblance of a direct reply.
And it is with this striking lack of clarity that a simple reality became even more clear: On the topic of the border, the Canadian government is stuck.
Pressure from the South
The United States experienced the COVID-19 pandemic in its own unique way. Rather than serving to reinforce national unity, it highlighted the deep cultural, political and social divisions that are tearing the country apart. From the wearing of masks to school closures, the response has been one anchored in tribalism. For most of the past year, opponents of the health measures were disproportionately supporters of Donald Trump.
This made the opposition to these measures, including the closing of the border, easier for the Trudeau government to manage politically given that the contention came from the “Trumpists,” ardent critics of science.
But the order has since changed considerably. From coast to coast, in the more Democratic as well as Republican states, the quasi-totality of restrictions has been lifted. For a good number of hockey fans here, there was a kind of shock at seeing the packed arena of the Golden Knights, with neither physical distancing nor masks. Nevada, a western state that voted for Joe Biden last November, has seen its Democratic governor repeal all measures tied to COVID-19 at the beginning of the month. The state merely followed the national trend.
On the topic of the closure of the border with Canada, a broad consensus has equally emerged in the United States, which is that it has lasted long enough.
In the days following the announcement by the Canadian government of the extension until July 21 of the land border closing with the United States, two high-profile Democrats from the state of New York, the biggest state neighboring Canada, came out to publicly blast the decision.
Rep. Brian Higgins, an early supporter of Canadian-American relations, flat-out called the decision “bullshit.” Sen. Chuck Schumer, Senate majority leader, agreed wholeheartedly calling it a “huge mistake.” Of the 100 senators in Washington, he is the most powerful.
In a statement issued in the hours after the Canadian ministers’ press conference, Schumer immediately summoned the Canadian ambassador to the United States in order to jointly deliver a solid reopening plan without delay. He called it “mindboggling” that New Yorkers were free to travel to Europe, but those who have been fully vaccinated still can’t even drive a few miles north to Canada to their businesses, stores, families and properties. He also said he was worried about the negative repercussions on tourism brought about by the prolonged border closure.
And these are just comments made in public. Add to them the voices of more and more Canadians representing border communities who, themselves, feel the pressure from the south.
At the same time, internal reverse pressure is exerting itself on Justin Trudeau’s cabinet. First of all, there is the position of the Canadian government apparatus which has maintained a hard line since the start of the pandemic. Just last month, the Public Health Agency of Canada recommended that a minimum of 75% of the population receive at least one dose of a vaccine and 20% receive a second before allowing “small, outdoor gatherings.” At no point were guidelines for the reopening of the border even mentioned.
With few exceptions, even while announcing plans to ease lockdowns in recent weeks, provincial governments have kept a series of restrictive measures like mask-wearing and limits on interior and exterior gatherings, which have no equivalents in the U.S. From a simply perceptual point of view, reopening the border while still managing the direction of traffic in supermarket aisles and prohibiting singing in bars seems difficult to imagine, to say the least. A reopening, one suspects, is at the back of the line.
Then, more broadly, there is the most fundamental pressure there is for a government: that from the people. And if a recent Leger survey is to be believed a basic conclusion is clear: A majority of Canadians are less than eager for a complete reopening of the border in the short term.
Accordingly, in early June, nearly 80% of Americans wanted travel to resume between the two countries versus 40% of Canadians. The first few months of the crisis, characterized by chaotic management by Trump and a generally cavalier attitude from several American officials in the face of the virus, have left a clear mark on Canadian public opinion, revealing unmistakable signs of discomfort at the idea of quickly reopening the valves.
Do Not Commit
In this context, what can the Canadian government do? Caught between a rock and a hard place, it is aiming for one thing over anything else which is to not be painted into a corner. Make as few firm commitments as possible to preserve room to maneuver within a dynamic where any firm position could frustrate stakeholders whose support it wants to maintain.
The situation is clearly untenable. The ministers in Trudeau’s cabinet, by their own admission, will have to provide more information and clarity sooner or later. And this may not be long in coming. Until then, the name of the game is: mum’s the word.