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Canada-U.S. border should stay shut but provincial ones shouldn’t harden: experts

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Now is not the time to look at reopening the border with the United States amid the coronavirus pandemic, experts say.

But at the same time, provinces should not be hardening the borders between themselves.

This week on The West Block, host Mercedes Stephenson was joined by a provincial health minister, a civil rights advocate and a former American ambassador to Canada, to discuss how the federal government should approach talks on reopening the border with the U.S.

READ MORE: As provinces mull reopening, experts say borders remain a challenge

Those conversations also touched on whether the actions by some provinces and territories to bar interprovincial movement is a good idea — or even legal.

New Brunswick, for example, is turning away travellers it deems to be non-essential and the Northwest Territories government has also banned all non-essential travel.

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Coronavirus outbreak: British Columbia’s second phase: reopening during COVID 19
Coronavirus outbreak: British Columbia’s second phase: reopening during COVID 19

Newfoundland last week also drew criticism over Bill 38, which granted sweeping new powers to police to detain and remove people from the province, and enter premises without warrants.

While the provincial health minister was later forced to clarify that does not mean police can enter homes without warrants, the legislation has nonetheless led to criticisms that it goes too far.

Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says his organization plans to challenge Newfoundland’s law in court as unconstitutional and warned that just because there is a public health emergency should not mean police can seize powers.

Coronavirus outbreak: COVID-19 restrictions cause of concern for Canadian civil liberties
Coronavirus outbreak: COVID-19 restrictions cause of concern for Canadian civil liberties

“We’re in the process of retaining Newfoundland counsel and should any day now be launching an application to try and get this unconstitutional law struck down,” he said.

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“This is not Canada, this is not right, this is not constitutional and among other things, it is not necessary. It is not necessary and proportionate in any way, no matter what the state of COVID-19 was but certainly the state of it today in Canada.”

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READ MORE: As B.C. flattens curve, think carefully about expanding social circle, Henry urges

Newfoundland on Friday reported no new cases of the virus.

The province is among those moving to ease restrictions on business and social activities that were put in place in a bid to contain the spread.

B.C. though has garnered the most success so far and was the first to flatten the curve of the outbreak without going into lockdown to the same extent as other provinces.

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COVID-19: Some provinces begin reopening

Adrian Dix, B.C.’s health minister, said the province focused early on learning lessons from provinces like Quebec that saw spikes in the virus following spring break travel by residents abroad.

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“That warning from Quebec allowed us to take very decisive action in advance of our school spring break here in B.C.,” Dix said, but added the province does not believe it needs to harden its border with other provinces to protect that success.

“I don’t believe we can treat provincial borders like international borders,” said Dix.

“I don’t think we can treat the Alberta border like the U.S. border and we don’t have any plans to do so.”

READ MORE: Trudeau says economy and Canada-U.S. border won’t be fully re-opened any time soon

That said, Dix noted he does not think it would be a good idea for that border with the U.S. to reopen anytime soon and said the country is “not ready” to accept visitors going back and forth.

The U.S. is the latest epicentre of the virus as officials there grapple with deaths that have swept across the country, forcing some states to turn to mass burials to keep up with the toll.

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Coronavirus outbreak: United States surpasses Italy for most COVID-19 deaths

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to shut the border down to non-essential travel in March and extended that order until the end of May last month.

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But with the deadline to reopen nearing, it’s unclear right now whether the shutdown will be extended and how the mercurial Trump could react if he pushes to reopen while Canada pushes to stay closed.

READ MORE: Canada-U.S. coronavirus border restrictions could soon be ‘released,’ Trump suggests

James Blanchard, former U.S. ambassador to Canada and former Democratic governor of Michigan, said he understands the frustrations of American allies in trying to figure out what Trump will do next.

“It’s hard to know. He’s a fairly abnormal personality, to say the least. One minute he attacks Canadians, next minute he talks about how great they are,” he said.

“Most of the members of Congress — Senate and House — [and] all the governors consider Canada a very valuable partner that needs to be listened to and worked with, not lectured to or undermined, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s reality. The president is not often dealing with reality.”

Blanchard said in border states like Michigan, the public and leaders recognize the importance of maintaining close trade ties with Canada, especially on health care, manufacturing and agricultural trade.

He said Canadian officials should do what they think is best.

“I think they should reopen whenever they think is wise.”

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Living through the pandemic on both sides of the border
Living through the pandemic on both sides of the border