Keep Our Border Open for Essential Commerce


The urge to seal off the world and huddle against threat is natural at a moment like this. Social distancing feels safe; contact with others doesn’t. 

Our elected leaders are under intense pressure to act. Around the world, doors are swinging shut and deadbolts are sliding closed. There has never been anything like this.

Which is why the Canadian and American governments deserve such credit. They have chosen to keep the border between our two countries open to essential traffic. It’s the essence of leadership — a compromise made in the interest of our common good.

Both Prime Minister Trudeau and President Trump have faced blunt questions about why they haven’t completely closed our common border, which is famously un-militarized, famously busy and famously long.

“It’s something that all Canadians understand is a unique situation,” Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told the CBC. “We need to really be thoughtful about what is the essential work that happens back and forth across that border.”

There’s the operative word: “essential.”

Modern technology has brought immense comforts, but in North America, they rest upon unprecedented national interlacing. The average Canadian or American seldom gives the subject much thought, but our way of life hangs from a complex, invisible and exceedingly fragile web of supply chains, arrangements, contracts and mutual consent, none of which was constructed to survive the catastrophic shock of a shutdown.

Examples abound, but let’s choose a couple that are relevant to the situation in which we find ourselves at the moment:

Canada has an aging population, increasingly reliant on medical devices imported from the United States. According to the Canadian government, diagnostic apparatus, orthopedic, prosthetic, patient monitoring and dental equipment are the items in highest demand. Ventilators, possibly the most vital equipment for doctors treating COVID-19 patients, are an excellent example of lifesaving imports from the U.S.

Data indicates the Canadian market depends on imports for about 80 per cent of its consumption, and “the United States is by far the biggest exporter of medical devices to Canada.”

There are also pharmaceuticals. Again, according to Canada’s figures, 38 per cent of imported medicines consumed by Canadian patients come from the United States. (At the same time, Americans consume more than half of Canada’s pharmaceutical exports. We are indeed mutually reliant).

Medical imports were perhaps on Minister Freeland’s mind when she said: “My first and foremost concern is to ensure that Canada’s public health care system has all the resources it needs to rise to this challenge.”

The medical sector is just the most timely example. Canada is the single biggest buyer of American goods and services. Nearly half of all foreign direct investment in Canada comes from the U.S.

Canada and the US have now ratified the updated version of the North American Free Trade Agreement. We have guaranteed access to each other’s markets that most of the world envies.

Surely Canadians have noticed that President Trump, a leader who leans toward tightening borders, and whose motto is “America First,” has taken a separate approach to Canada. This week, he declared that it was best to keep our common border as open as possible, and his officials were telling American reporters that Canadians continue to be “honest brokers, and friends in crisis.”

Both President Trump and Prime Minister Trudeau understand that were they to close the border completely, the impact would almost certainly be so destructive that the massive stimulus packages now being prepared in Ottawa and Washington would fail.

Again, this is not an attempt to understate the grim reality we are living at the moment. The Occam’s Razor right now is the word “essential.”

Casual cross-border visits are a wonderful thing in good times, and our tourists spend a great deal into both our economies. But this is not the time for tourism (in any case, cross-border visits and shopping had cratered by this week, and with both countries requiring all visitors to self-isolate for two weeks, a holiday right now would be impossible).

But allowing in the essential workers who cross the border by truck, train, marine vessel and aircraft makes perfect sense. As does the decision to exempt the healthy ones from weeks of imposed self-isolation.  

Canadians and Americans with extended families in the other country can also take comfort that compassionate visits – to help a relative in an emergency, or who has fallen ill — can also continue.

We should be grateful for such common sense. Our leaders are besieged politicians trying to do the right thing, rather than the politically expedient thing.

We are all of us trying to shelter, and we are all gravely worried. We are trying to make it through this. But we have to realize that our health also depends on our economic well-being.  

The last time our border slammed shut was after 9/11. It didn’t last long, but was still very nearly catastrophic for our economies. Our two countries are socially distancing, and that’s appropriate. As Minister Freeland said, it’s how friends behave. We are doing the right thing.