Shutting the US-Canada Border Is a Game Changer

The U.S.-Canada border border hasn't been shut since 9/11 and, since then, we've been doing everything in our power not to close it.
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A U.S. border official checks Canadians attempting to come into America. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson.

UPDATE: Border to Close Overnight Friday

On Monday, Justin Trudeau announced that Canada was shutting its borders.

The list of those allowed in is short: Canadian citizens, permanent residents, and, surprisingly, the 300 million-plus U.S. citizens to our south. For many, the ban seemed toothless if Canada were going to allow Americans to travel north.

Health officials, in particular, were not happy with the decision to leave the border with the U.S. open. In a press conference, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said the province remains “concerned that access from visitors from the United States continues to be allowed, given the situation particularly in Snohomish County in Washington state, which affects British Columbia more than anywhere else.”


“It’s our strong view, and our strong message, that visitors from the United States not come to British Columbia,” said Dix. “Don’t come, because, at this moment, this is the wrong thing to do.”

On Tuesday night, CBC and CNN reported that the two countries are working on an agreement that will essentially close the borders to “non-essential” human traffic but keep it open to some trade to make sure critical supply chains are left open. The deal is currently being finalized and is expected to come within the next 24 to 48 hours. If it occurs it would mark an unprecedented move to stop the spread of COVID-19 and would be the biggest border shutdown since the 9/11 attacks.

U.S. President Donald Trump confirmed the reports Wednesday morning by tweeting, "We will be, by mutual consent, temporarily closing our Northern Border with Canada to non-essential traffic. Trade will not be affected. Details to follow!"

While shutting down the border is a massive deal, thankfully, the decision was made bilaterally with trade still being allowed. It could have been significantly worse. Some former political operatives said after the initial border closure, if Canada were to not allow Americans in, there could be the potential for blowback from an erratic president who doesn’t handle being rebuked on a global stage very well. Only a year ago did a tariffs battle—in which the Trump administration declared Canada a “national security threat”—over steel came to an end. Trump’s foreign policy has often been erratic and confusing, and is not big on consultation. Just within the past few days, European Union leaders publicly rebuked Trump, saying they were not consulted on his ban of European travellers.


“On closing the US border, please remember, President Trump deemed Canada a ‘national security threat’ and outrageously imposed s232 tariffs on steel,” tweeted former Canadian Industry Minister James Moore. “To assume he wouldn’t react to a blunt border crossing ban with an irrational response could be a real threat to (the) fresh food supply.”

Gerald Butts, Justin Trudeau’s former right-hand man, retweeted Moore and said, “guess which country is the source for half of Canada’s medical device imports?”

A source told the CBC that leaving the American border open was a sign of goodwill to the Americans, meant to aid in border negotiations.

As Butts and Moore indicate, the U.S.-Canada border is of immense importance; the two countries are perhaps the most intertwined in the world. According to Statistics Canada, the United States is responsible for over half of the food imported into Canada—a large part of that being fresh produce, especially in the winter and spring months. This involves billions of dollars of agricultural products crossing the border in either direction. In terms of agriculture, Canada is the United States' biggest customer: in 2018, $20.7 billion of U.S. agriculture exports came north. The two countries are also incredibly important to each other when it comes to medical goods.

A full closure of the border would be the stuff of nightmares for Canada.

Thankfully, closing the U.S.-Canada border is something far easier said than done. At 8,893 kilometres, it’s the largest land border in the world and figuring out a way to deal with how porous it is will be a logistical nightmare. Dr. Veronica Kitchen, an associate political science professor at the University of Waterloo, told VICE that if the border were to close we would lose control over who was coming in.


“Land borders are far easier to enter through the points of entry at airports,” said Kitchen. “And the conventional wisdom is that if you close the land border, people will just look for other ways to cross it and then you lose control.”

There are systems and bureaucrats in place that have, for years, worked to ensure something like this wouldn’t happen. Since 9/11, when the border last shut down, Canada has been working with the U.S. to ensure something like this doesn’t occur, said Philippe Lagasse, an associate professor of international affairs at Carleton University.

“We've worked with the U.S. and successive administrations to put in place various border border security regimes and other things to try and ensure that you know, even in the case, of an emergency, goods and people can still flow,” said Lagasse. “So you have to kind of bear that in mind when people say: ‘OK, well, we should just be shutting down the border.’”

“From the Canadian perspective that would go against everything that we worked on. For 20 years, every kind of hope that we've had that crisis doesn't lead to borders shut down.”

There is a possibility of a closure happening and even one that doesn’t create too much of a negative impact for either country. If the border were to shut, Lagasse said it would most likely be one where tourism is shut down but commercial traffic resumes—much like what has been reported to be in the works.


“If we don't do that, you know, everything that we've heard thus far there are certain industries in Canada that would simply have to shut down, like the integrated auto industry. Even the food supply would be impacted,” said Lagasse. “A lot of things would suddenly be cause for question. So before you kind of put these measures in place, you probably want to coordinate with the U.S.”

Because, frankly put, if it’s not planned out, and handled poorly, it’ll hurt Canada a hell of a lot more than the United States.

“You don't want the U.S. to do something like close the Canada U.S. border entirely,” said Kitchen. “And then you don't get those essential goods and services across and that's going to hurt Canada far more than it hurts the United States.”

“The bigger issue right now is the fact we need them more than they need us,” said Lagasse.

This story has been updated with confirmation from Donald Trump.

Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.