Canada

Border battle: Canadians, Americans wonder when — or if — normalcy will return

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The Detroit River is about a kilometre wide, but for more than a year now it might as well be a thousand for Windsor and Detroit residents.

Long gone due to the COVID-19 pandemic are quick cross-border trips in both directions to enjoy restaurants, shopping or a Tigers’ ballgame at Comerica Park.

The complete shutdown of the Canada-U.S. border, aside from essential workers and trade, has separated lovers, grandparents from grandchildren, lifelong friends and crucial business alliances.

For safety reasons, there initially was complete buy-in during the early stages of the pandemic among the region’s residents to shutting down the border.

But as the months dragged on — now more than a year — serious fears have emerged as to whether casual cross-border trips for business or pleasure will ever return for cities across the nation, such as Windsor and Detroit.

People wonder what the new reality of travel across the Canada-U.S. border will look like whenever COVID-19 fears ease — and exactly when that will finally occur.

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“What are we going to be doing to stay safe?” said MP Brian Masse (NDP — Windsor-West), whose riding includes the Ambassador Bridge and Detroit-Windsor tunnel, representing the busiest land border crossing on the continent. “Is there going to be a time in three months where there is a plan on what to do for family members or grandparents instead of going month by month and just saying ‘no.’

“We are going to need predictability.”

Masse’s office has been swamped with complaints and angst of those frustrated at not being allowed to cross the border to complete business deals, help care for elderly family members, see newborn grandchildren or attend weddings and funerals.

The Windsor-Detroit tunnel at the Windsor, Ontario exit is shown on Saturday, April 3, 2021.
The Windsor-Detroit tunnel at the Windsor, Ontario exit is shown on Saturday, April 3, 2021. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

A few weeks ago the MP wrote a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau requesting a task force of business, labour, local elected officials and relevant public agencies to develop a land crossing reopening plan.

Without that, Masse fears chaos.

“The government it seems is not talking to anybody,” he said. “How are they going to deal with family reunification and business impacts? You can’t just have blanket policies, but need clear directions to get people across the border without complications.

“Right now people have no hope with no process in sight.”

*****

North Vancouver’s Genevieve Cothren had plans to skip across the U.S. border last year to visit her then long-term boyfriend, Carson, the weekend it closed to non-essential travel — just as she had almost every other weekend the past five years.

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“It sucked, it felt like it was a dream, to be honest,” said Cothren, a 26-year-old accounting clerk in the film industry. “It was just like (this) imaginary line that separates us.”

Uncertainty had been building. Carson had visited Genevieve in Canada on the previous weekend. As of March 13, 2020, with outbreaks emerging in both countries and case counts rising, crossing had started looking iffy.

“(Provincial Health Officer) Dr. Bonnie Henry said that you should quarantine when you go down, when you come back home and I was like, I can’t do that for work,” Cothren said.

Then on March 19, 2020, Trudeau and then U.S. President Donald Trump issued a declaration the border would be restricted to only “essential” trade and work-related travel which wouldn’t include routine crossings Genevieve and Carson had taken for granted.

The couple had already bought a house in Blaine, WA, for their long-term plans, and “it was awful going from (travelling) down there whenever I wanted to not knowing when the border would reopen,” Cothren said.

Instantly they were among cross-border couples being separated, residents on each side blocked from property they own, those separated from their family or operators of tourism businesses left starved for cross-border customers.

The Canada Border Services Agency counted 3.2 million non-trade crossings from the day restrictions were put in place last March 21, 2020, until March 8 of this year.

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But that compares to almost 50 million crossings for the same corresponding period between 2019 and 2020.

A year into the pandemic, as both countries race to vaccinate their populations, everyone wants “a bridge of some kind” to start restoring cross-border travel, said British Columbia tourism executive Walt Judas.

“Whether it’s a safe travel, digital passport or whether that includes rapid testing (at the border), those are things that our industry desperately needs to salvage another year of difficulty,” said Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C.

Pre-pandemic, Destination Canada estimated international travel was worth $22 billion a year to the country’s tourism sector with U.S. travellers “10 times the size of any other (market),” said Marsha Walden, CEO of the tourism promotion agency.

“In those first couple of months in tourism, we really went from a thriving industry to zero industry overnight,” Walden said, “and we will likely be the longest to recover among all industries.”

In this file photo, U.S. Customs officers speaks with people in a car beside a sign saying that the U.S. border is closed at the U.S.-Canada border in Lansdowne, Ont., on March 22, 2020.
In this file photo, U.S. Customs officers speaks with people in a car beside a sign saying that the U.S. border is closed at the U.S.-Canada border in Lansdowne, Ont., on March 22, 2020. Photo by LARS HAGBERG /AFP via Getty Images

At Niagara Helicopters Ltd. in Niagara Falls, Anna Pierce said they laid off 10 of 25 full-time employees at their aerial-tour operation that is heavily reliant on Americans driving across the border for the “bucket-list” experience of flights along the iconic falls.

“In March of last year, it was kind of like, we’re going to shut everything down for two weeks to three weeks and then we’ll let you know,” said Pierce, the company’s vice-president and general manager.

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A year later, after coming back to a shortened season — saved from absolute disaster by visitors close to home around Southern Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe and from Quebec — Pierce at least sees a clearer picture for the fate of Niagara Helicopters.

“The reality is that until a good, I would say 60 to 70 per cent of the population is vaccinated on both sides of the border, I don’t see the borders opening,” Pierce said.

She guessed maybe July or August in the best-case scenario, but she is not counting on it.

“We’re planning for the worst and hoping for the best, that’s the only way we can function right now,” Pierce said.

*****

In western Washington State, small border towns on the U.S. side are equally starved without the regular traffic of Canadian cross-border visitors and shoppers. Perhaps no more so than the tiny recreational community of Point Roberts.

Isolated on a spit of land cut off from the U.S. mainland by the border, Point Roberts relies on the Canadian recreational property owners who normally swell its summer population to 5,000 from a usual year-round population of about 1,200.

“I just feel at this point, (Canadian) property owners should be considered essential travel,” said Maggie Mori, whose family owns a cabin in Point Roberts which they can see from the border, but haven’t visited since February of 2020.

“It’s been over a year and at this point, I feel we should be able to at least have a one-time check on our properties.”

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Full-time Point Roberts residents, about half of whom have already been vaccinated for COVID-19, are willing to do whatever it takes to restore even limited movement, said Brian Calder, president of the Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce.

He wants to see full-time residents have access to services in Canada they don’t have on the U.S. side, such as specialist medical care or vet services.

“We have nothing, except across the border,” Calder said. “We don’t have any economic support from Bellingham or the mainland U.S.A.”

In the meantime, people are moving away from Point Roberts, leaving its full-time population at about 800, according to Calder.

“It’s a ghost town,” he said. “You forget how to drive because there’s no one else on the road.”

*****

The Ambassador Bridge in Windsor is the single busiest international land border crossing in North America — accommodating 27 per cent of the approximately $400 billion in annual trade between Canada and the U.S.

On average, more than 200,000 trucks cross the 91-year old bridge each month. That number dropped by half during the first two months of the pandemic, but then essentially returned to normal for the remainder of 2020 and is roughly down just over five per cent for the first two months of this year, according to numbers from the Bridge and Tunnel Operators Association.

The bridge has long been a linchpin for the automotive and manufacturing sector throughout Ontario and rust belt states in the U.S. midwest, which support hundreds of thousands of jobs.

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“To some extent, economic activity was knocked out in the early months of the pandemic, but was then able to quickly come back,” said Bill Anderson, director of the University of Windsor’s Cross-Border Institute which studies economic activity.

Proof of the successful movement of goods despite the pandemic shows on the full shelves of grocery and big box stores, auto dealership showrooms and the minimal job loss in the manufacturing sector, he said.

An auto hauler is shown on the Ambassador Bridge on Tuesday, February 9, 2021, heading towards Windsor.
An auto hauler is shown on the Ambassador Bridge on Tuesday, February 9, 2021, heading towards Windsor. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

But Anderson fears ongoing interruption of tool and die and automation industries where cross-border corporate business deals have been largely frozen due to the lockdown.

“You are talking about the equipment that makes the products,” he said. “People are having a hard time getting together to complete orders and contracts.

“This is multimillion-dollar equipment. It’s not something you can order by clicking a box. There has to be interaction of (corporate leaders) going on site. It involves a lot of face-to-face with people moving back and forth across the border.”

The governments have deemed many business people not to be essential workers.

“The meetings are not taking place,” Anderson said. “It might not be reflected in trade right now, but will be in six months from now.

“The message out there is you cannot maintain trade in the long run without the movement of people. There is a lot of face-to-face communication and technical work on customer sites. These activities have been interrupted for more than a year.”

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Masse believes re-opening the Canada-U.S. border depends on vaccinations.

“I think that has to sort itself our first,” he said. “The U.S. is ahead of us (in terms of numbers vaccinated). The U.S. will have to figure out whether they want Canadians to be vaccinated or not for non-essential travel. From there, that will create discussion.”

Masse is a sitting member of the Canada-United States Inter-parliamentary Group which includes MPs, senators and congress representatives from both sides of the border.

“The good news is our U.S. counterparts have a high degree of political interest to bring normalcy to what the border was before,” he said. “There may be a number of steps required, but there is a strong desire to try and fix this.”

But until the border reopens, separation continues to push a lot of cross-border couples to choose one country to settle in, leading to a boom in immigration-related business for lawyers on both sides.

“People are losing patience,” said Len Saunders, a lawyer in Blaine, WA. “As of right now, people are making long-term plans, because short term, there seems to be no change.”

Genevieve and Carson Cothren agree.

Carson formally proposed last July and they married in September in a small ceremony at Peace Arch Park in Blaine — a cross-border spot open to both sides of the border and loophole for residents to meet face-to-face, if only briefly.

Now Genevieve is in the middle of a spousal Green Card application for permanent resident status in the U.S. — something she was going to do, but now a year earlier due to the border lockdown.

“I’m happy that Carson and I are married now and that I will be living with him, hopefully within the next couple of months,” Genevieve said. “And that wouldn’t be happening right now if it wasn’t for the border being shut.”

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