As vaccination efforts remain slow in Canada, pandemic continues to impact relations
By Eric Anderson
(Albany) Times Union
The Canadian border slammed shut to American tourists at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, and it’s likely to stay that way for a while.
That appeared to be the consensus of business leaders on both sides of the border during a virtual panel discussion Wednesday morning.
First, Canadians largely oppose it, said Jean Charest, a former premier of Quebec who serves on a Wilson Center’s Canada Institute panel studying how to reopen. A Leger poll taken last month showed 70 percent of Canadian respondents had concerns about reopening the border to Americans.
Charest said that, early on, Canadians were “smug” as their infection rates were well below those in the U.S. “The tables have turned,” he said Wednesday, as a campaign to vaccinate Americans has reached a large share of the population. Meanwhile, Canadian infections are climbing as vaccine shortages slow progress.
On Wednesday, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported just 2.82 percent of Canadians were fully vaccinated, compared to 27.12 percent in the U.S.
The Leger poll results may have dampened enthusiasm at the national level for a quick border reopening, particularly if Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces re-election in the autumn. “Trudeau may want to delay any changes until after an election,” Charest said.
South of that border, there’s also a sense that newly elected President Joseph Biden hasn’t made the Canada border reopening a top priority.
“We have to pressure our national governments to have a plan,” said Charest. “We did not get the sense of urgency on both sides.”
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, who co-chairs the Congressional Northern Border Caucus, spoke briefly before her connection to the virtual conference failed. An aide who filled in suggested business leaders could get the administration to focus on the issue.
“We’re looking for more clarity … on where we are in the process,” Stefanik’s aide said. “What can the public expect in the next couple of months?”
And Stefanik, in a follow-up video, echoed those comments.
“I have urged the Biden administration to make bilateral collaboration an immediate priority,” Stefanik said.
Charest, meanwhile, said that governors and premiers were cooperating, but that “we need to have relationships at every level.”
A year (plus) without Canadians
Read more about the border closure’s impact on the Adirondacks
Families remain separated, and while goods move back and forth across the border, workers and property owners often can’t.
One red flag that popped up was Toronto’s move to levy a non-occupancy tax on properties whose owners leave apartments or cottages vacant for a year or more. Vancouver previously instituted such a tax.
“If you’re an American who owns a cottage in Canada, are you going to be taxed for not occupying it?” asked Charest. “Hopefully, the answer … has to be no.”
Garry Douglas, president and CEO of the North Country Chamber of Commerce in Plattsburgh, said businesses can’t perform due diligence if they can’t visit plant sites, while Charest said the border closing could have far-reaching effects.
“Business are going to make choices that are the consequence of a border closing,” Charest said.
What will it take to reopen the border?
A certain level of vaccinations on both sides, a recent test for COVID-19, and a reduction to a certain level in infections and hospitalizations, will be required, officials agreed.
Then, said Charest, there’d also be the need to verify all this information at the border, perhaps a digital passport or similar tool.
Borders are a security issue, but crossing them should also be “as seamless as possible,” he said. Above all, he pleaded, “we need a plan. Give us a plan. Give us a plan.”
Wednesday’s panel discussion included Charest, Stefanik, and Douglas, as well as Charles Milliard, president and CEO of the Fédération des chambres de commerce du Québec.
Editor’s note: This originally ran in the Times Union.