WASHINGTON – The border between Canada and the United States was once known as the longest “undefended” border in the world – a misnomer that largely disappeared in the chaos of September 11, 2001.
Other myths have arisen in its place, however: that Al-Qaida operatives have crossed it to mount their brazen attacks on Washington and New York, for example. Or that the shared management of the Canada-US border was a shining example of bilateral harmony at work.
Dispelling the former took years of relentless effort on the part of countless diplomats. The COVID-19 pandemic has made short work of the second.
“Obviously, we are not on the same wavelength” when it comes to how the border was handled during the pandemic, Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University, told Bellingham, Wash.
“The extent to which we are moving in tandem on how we manage the border has completely disappeared. The difference with September 11 was that the United States obviously led this response, but Canada followed it in a fairly close relationship. ”
In fact, Canada had little choice in the matter 20 years ago, when the United States, suddenly finding itself on the war footing with no idea when the next attack might take place, quickly tightened up. ranks, blocked commercial air travel and closed its borders.
“Immediately, the status of Alert 1,” recalled Michael Kergin, who at the time was Canada’s Ambassador to the United States. “Closed the border completely. Sealed.”
The consequences were swift and costly: Semi-trailers bound for the United States, many of which carried auto parts made in Canada to American factories, began to pile up, forming queues of dozens of kilometers deep. In Ontario, the overflow quickly began to obstruct the 401, Canada’s busiest highway.
As fate would have it, Kergin turned out to be friends with Andy Card, the White House chief of staff under George W. Bush who was not only Secretary of Transportation in the previous Bush administration, but spent the intervening years as a powerful automotive industry. lobbyist.
Card – the man who whispered “America is under attack” in the president’s ear – knew the likely repercussions of a closed border. Kergin knew his phone number.
“I never thought his cell phone would work,” Kergin recalls.
“It does, and then we started a process to reduce the blockage at the border to get the first things through so customs can start letting the trucks through.”
Fate and Kergin’s Rolodex conspired again on behalf of Canada soon after when another longtime acquaintance, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, was hired to lead the new Department of Homeland Security. .
Kergin knew Ridge had championed the modernization of rural Pennsylvania as governor, a cause close to the heart of former Industry Minister John Manley, whom then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had recently promoted to the post. Foreign Affairs.
“They bonded well and got on really well,” Kergin said. “In about three months, we had a pretty good formula for mitigating adverse effects at the border.”
This formula would produce the Smart Border Declaration, a bilateral handshake that has become the basis for new high-tech customs clearance features to speed and streamline commercial and business travel while enhancing security.
Modern dedicated shipping lanes, trusted traveler programs like NEXUS and Global Entry, and freight screening systems are among the common devices for travel between Canada and the United States that owe their existence to the original agreement. .
Two decades later, this cooperation is one of the main reasons essential workers, commercial expeditions and international students were allowed to cross the border during the pandemic, despite restrictions on discretionary travel such as vacations and holidays. cross-border shopping.
“It was easier to shut down like they did in 2020 because of the systems in place since September 11,” said Roy Norton, a former senior diplomat who served as assistant deputy minister in the Ontario government on time.
But the sense of mutual cooperation during the pandemic evaporated last month when Canada began allowing non-essential travel for fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Other foreign nationals who have received a full course of a Health Canada-approved vaccine can participate starting Tuesday.
The United States, however, has yet to reciprocate, citing the Delta variant of COVID-19 by extending its land border restrictions until at least September 21.
Popular campaigns by residents and businesses in communities near the border have sprung up in recent months, unsuccessfully demanding that the Biden administration begin allowing non-essential travel at border crossings between the United States and Canada. .
Non-essential travelers can enter the United States from Canada by air, in part because of the rules and regulations imposed by airlines, but this has done little to reassure families in places like Windsor or Fort Erie, in Ontario, with family members at age five. minutes by car to Detroit or Buffalo
“Right now in the United States we have a situation where the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t want to process health data at the border, but the Centers for Disease Control is basically saying, ‘We can’t just let people come in-nilly, ‘”Trautman said.
“I think there is a lot of institutional memory that has been lost, not just over the past 20 years, but over the past four to five years.”
The solution, Trautman said, is some sort of permanent watchdog presence within the government bureaucracy that would keep border issues at the forefront of US policy decisions.
“Whether it’s a panel or a commission or whatever, something with a certain longevity and historical knowledge that can defend the border,” she said.
“To a certain extent, they sort of fall to the bottom of the priority list. If you had an ongoing structure to handle this stuff, they would be handled a lot more efficiently and a lot more deliberately.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on September 4, 2021.