WASHINGTON — When, not if, the next pandemic strikes, Canada and the United States need to work more closely together on a mutual, integrated strategy for managing risk at the shared border, rather than trying to shut it down entirely, a new report says.
A task force assembled by the D.C.-based Wilson Center, which included former Quebec premier Jean Charest and former Canadian justice minister Anne McLellan, concluded in its final report that closing the border entirely to non-essential travel likely did as much harm as good.
Next time — and there will be a next time, the panel warns — a plan to mitigate risk rather than trying to reduce it to zero would ultimately be a better solution, its members said Friday.
“A lot of people personally suffered through this period … there was a very high cost on a personal level that can’t be measured, but it was real,” Charest said during the virtual launch of the final report.
“If only for that reason, we believe governments would be well-advised to look at more of a risk management approach.”
The panel also included former Washington governor Christine Gregoire and James Douglas, the former governor of Vermont, both of them from border states where managing the shared frontier is a more pressing priority than it might be in other parts of the country.
The panel also found that despite the lived experience of similar public health crises in the past, such as the SARS outbreak in Toronto in 2003 or the H1N1 swine flu pandemic of 2009, neither country seemed to apply the lessons they had already learned.
And despite public pronouncements of a mutual, bilateral plan when the COVID-19 border restrictions were first imposed in March 2020, Canada and the U.S. didn’t actually work together on the strategy as closely as was believed, Charest added.
Unlike in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, when the U.S. suddenly and unilaterally closed its borders to international travel, “this time, a decision was taken to act together, and to be synchronized,” Charest said.
“Only what we discovered in looking at the process is that there was much less co-ordination than what we had thought there should have been — much less.”
Among the report’s other findings:
— There was no tangible plan in place for a return to normal operations, making for uneven and unpredictable conditions across the length of the 9,000-kilometre border;
— A lack of government responsiveness to the concerns of individuals and businesses undermined public confidence in the measures and their efficacy;
— The restrictions focused on the purpose of travel, rather than on engaging members of the public about how they could cross the border safely;
— Legislators and lawmakers at the national level were “largely marginalized,” as were regional and local government officials;
— Both countries missed the opportunity to partner with the private sector and incorporate input from businesses on how best to manage the restrictions.
The panel also called for border authorities to be more creative in finding solutions for people with urgent travel needs, including through pilot projects, “trusted tester” programs and adapting restrictions in various regions to better suit the needs of local communities.
“Quite candidly, at the end of the day, we don’t want a separation,” Gregoire said. “We really fundamentally believe that there are technological advances, there are opportunities. If we can keep planes in the air, where people can travel, we can keep that border open.”
Canadians and Americans alike both adjusted in time to the new measures that were put in place at the border following the 9/11 attacks, and will do so again after the pandemic, said McLellan, who was justice minister in Jean Chrétien’s government at the time.
“Now you don’t hear anyone complaining about the fact they have to have a passport to cross the border,” McLellan said.
“Just as after 9/11, life doesn’t return to so-called normal. It is a new life, with a set of new procedures, but in fact, we all live happily within that domain.”
The travel rules prohibited non-essential leisure travel over the land border without restricting trade shipments and essential workers. Canada began easing restrictions for fully vaccinated travellers in August, while a new U.S. requirement that travellers be fully vaccinated will take effect Nov. 8.
The U.S. will continue to require that air travellers produce evidence of a recent negative COVID-19 test, but the office of New York congressman Brian Higgins says that requirement won’t apply to those entering the country by land.
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed for us again today that there will not be a testing requirement for vaccinated travellers to cross the land border,” Higgins’ office said in a statement.
Higgins has already called on Canada’s federal government to abandon its requirement that travellers submit the results of a costly PCR test before arriving at a land-border crossing. The $200 test is a significant deterrent to travel and a drag on the economic recovery in border communities, he said.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, acknowledged Friday that testing is “very much a live issue” both inside the federal government, as well as in discussions with provinces and territories.
But as of now, she said the testing requirement remains an important safety measure, even with strong vaccination rates in Canada, particularly given the uncertainty surrounding the Delta variant and lingering questions about how long vaccines remain effective.
“No layer of protection is ever 100 per cent perfect, we know that,” Tam said.
“With all these considerations, I think having that additional layer of protection (from testing) is important at this time, but we will review it.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 29, 2021.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press