Canada-U.S. border tensions


The Peace Arch in British Columbia is a 20 metres testament to the close ties between Canada and the US. Yet the tensions are growing on a Canada-U.S. border.

On one side are the words “May these gates never be closed.” This is a reminder of the nearly 8,891 km of un-militarised border that separates the two nations.

For almost 100 years, those words have been heeded – until the coronavirus pandemic effectively shut the border indefinitely.

The closure came into effect on 21 March, and was agreed upon by both governments. The border was extended several times over the summer; it remains in effect until 21 August. However, most expect it to be extended again.

Canadians wanted the Canada-U.S. border to stay closed

The border closure has had significant economic and personal repercussions for the millions of people. Yet the vast majority of Canadians want it to stay shut.

A July poll by Ipsos Reid found that eight in ten Canadians wanted the border to stay closed until at least the end of 2020.

And as the pandemic has continued to spread across the US, so have tensions between American drivers and Canadian residents.

Commercial drivers delivering goods and people who work across the border in essential services are permitted to cross.

People with American licence plates have reported being harassed and having their vehicles vandalised. It happens regardless of every right to be on the Canadian side.

Mr Saunders, an immigration lawyer says many people are afraid.

“People are scared of driving their cars in the lower mainland because of vandalism, dirty looks and just getting treated as some ‘horrible American'”.

One of his clients, an architect who has the right to practise in Canada during the shutdown, says he was told to “go back home” because of his car.

Hostility towards Americans is spiking

The tensions are so high that British Columbia Premier John Horgan suggested that Canadians with out-of-province licence plates should take the bus or ride bikes instead.

In the Muskoka region of Ontario, where many people have summer homes, the hostility has garnered police attention.

Ontario Provincial Police say a Canadian in the town of Huntsville filed a complaint after two men allegedly accosted him over his Florida licence plate.

“Most recently this weekend, there was a gentleman up towards Huntsville getting gas in his vehicle; two gentlemen approached him and said, ‘you’re American go home.’ And he said, ‘I’m Canadian. I live here.’ And they literally said, no, we don’t believe you show us your passport,” Phil Harding, the mayor of nearby Muskoka Lakes, told CP24.

Those caught breaking the rules can face serious consequences.

In Grand Forks, British Columbia, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police spent over two hours chasing a man, who allegedly had crossed illegally in a stolen vehicle on 24 July, down a river. The “float chase” ended where the river narrowed. The police, with the help of bystanders, were able to wade into the river and escort him back to shore.

Charges are pending, but anyone breaking the border restrictions can get a fine up to C$750,000 ($566,000; £434,000) and end up with a sentence to six months in jail, or C$1m and three years if their actions “cause risk of imminent death or serious bodily harm”.

Those hefty fines aren’t just for wilful rule-breakers.

On Wednesday, police warned Americans participating in an annual float down the St Claire River near the Canada-U.S. border at Michigan, that even accidentally crossing into Canada could lead to a hefty fine.

Canada-U.S. border: Fear of the second wave of coronavirus

Still, the effects of the border closure on the small towns along either side are not insignificant.

Before coronavirus, around 300,000 people crossed the border every day, including Canadians who routinely made daytrips to score a deal at US outlet malls or petrol stations, and American tourists exploring the wonder of Niagara Falls.

Since March, non-commercial land border crossings to Canada have dropped by nearly 95%, according to the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA).

“It’s going to decimate everything up there,” Mr Saunders says.

But the economic impact of closing the border to travellers is nothing to what could happen to Canada if another wave of coronavirus forced a second shutdown, says Ambarish Chandra, a professor of economics at the University of Toronto.

“This travel does have a lot of economic impact on the communities where travellers go to,” he says.

“But given the pandemic in the US, it makes sense to restrict travel to the US.”

Read: 8 ways to protect against coronavirus

Prof Chandra says government should provide aid to border towns whose economy relies heavily on foreign tourism. At the same time, it should hold steady with the border closures until the pandemic is over.

“In the long run it’s way cheaper to bail out all of Niagara Falls, Ontario, than to close down Toronto for even another three or four weeks,” he says.

Canada’s coronavirus cases have dropped

After months of shuttering most businesses, Canada’s coronavirus cases are dropping; the country is in the middle of re-opening its economy. Daily cases have dropped from a high of 2,760 on 3 May to a few hundred.

Restaurants and shops have been open for at least a few weeks in most major cities. So far, cases are still trending downwards.

Meanwhile, the US is trying to tame its outbreak. The number of cases reached a peak of 75,821 on 17 July and about 40,000 new cases a day.

Those numbers are what’s fuelling the unease many Canadians have with American travellers.

“Montana is directly south of us, is having a second spike of cases right now. I don’t feel sorry for anybody stopped at the border, let’s put it that way,” says Jim Willett, the mayor of Coutts, Alberta.

“I’m afraid if we opened up the border too soon, we might have more of a problem like what’s going on down south.”

His town is one of the five border towns where US residents travelling to Alaska can enter Canada, since the CBSA cracked down on the so-called “Alaska loophole” at the end of July.

Alaska shares no borders with other US states. It meant Americans who drive there on land have to go through Canada, hence the “loophole”.

Are Americans breaking the rules?

Many have expressed concern that drivers have been exploiting the loophole to explore some of the country’s most scenic places.

In June, RCMP issued seven tickets worth $1,200 ($906, £694) each to Americans who broke the rules.

Complaints about the loophole and the lack of enforcement led to the crackdown.

At the end of July, the border authority announced that Alaska-bound travellers had only limited points of entry; this means they must take the most direct route to their destination. They also must display tags in their vehicle identifying them as US drivers going to the northern state.

They can also stay in Canada for a “reasonable period”. Besides, they cannot visit national parks, leisure sites and other tourist destinations, with rule-breakers facing the stiff penalties.

Since the tougher rules, Mr Willett says he’s not “too concerned” about the traffic coming over the border.

“[We] get quite a few people through all times of the day and night. Most of them are quite co-operative,” he says.