News Clips: I want to turn our attention south of the border, where the number of COVID-19 cases now tops 2 million. That’s more than double the cases in any other…
To the latest on a coronavirus emergency, Arizona and Texas setting new records while over the weekend, Florida reported its biggest one day increase in cases since the pandemic started.
Your proposal to deploy some troops along the Canadian border, why is that necessary?
Trump: Well, we have very strong deployments on the Southern border, as you know, with Mexico. And we had some troops up in Canada, but I’ll find out about that. I guess it’s equal justice to a certain extent.
Jordan: So how do you feel about opening up the U S Canada border right now? My guess would be not great. And that would put you squarely with a majority of Canadians who tell pollsters they’re extremely nervous as they watch our friends and neighbors to the south handling this pandemic. But while the Corona Virus has made the difference between our two countries obvious, the truth is that we’ve been drifting apart for a while now.
And there’s no better place to see that than at the border and in the public sentiment for keeping it shut. But what does that mean as the weeks stretch into months with crossings closed to all the non-essential traffic? For the communities who exist right next to one another, but on opposite sides of a line they used to cross every day, barely thinking twice?
How has the enforcement of the U S Canada border changed over the last 200 years? And what will it look like in the future? Because if there’s one thing the history of this border has shown us, is that when things change, they never really go back to normal. They evolve just like the Canada U S relationship.
The border is always changing, and the pandemic might spark the most dramatic shift yet.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Alex Bitterman is a professor at the Alfred State College of Technology at the state university of New York. He is also the coauthor of a piece in The Conversation on the past, present and future of the U S Canada border. Hi Alex.
Alex: Hello Jordan. Thanks for having me today.
Jordan: No problem. I’m hoping that you can start, I know that we all probably know the history of the longest undefended border, or at least we know that catchphrase, but could you maybe explain the significance of the U S Canada border from a longterm, big picture point of view?
Alex: Sure, Canada and the United States share the longest unmilitarized border in the world.
And historically, for the past 208 years, the border has largely been untouched. We haven’t had any scuffles or debates over where the border is, and we’ve had reasonably free and easy passage of people and goods over that border. So that makes what’s happening right now, somewhat unusual in the case that the border is effectively closed.
So for the first time in most of our lives, the two countries are operating in very separate spheres, and that usual crossover that occurs, is not currently occurring with the greatest of ease or under usual circumstances.
Jordan: Well take me back to when we did close the border earlier this year. So how big a decision was that, logistically? And what does it mean in practice? What’s getting through, what’s not, what happens at the border right now?
Alex: So it’s interesting because there are sort of several angles to come at this. And the first is, well what happened? Who made the decision first? Was it the United States or Canada? After our piece was published in The Conversation there’s been a fair amount of dialogue back and forth. And what’s interesting is it seems from what my research partner Daniel Baldwin and I have been able to discern, is that Canada was the first to say, we think we should close the border, but they did that through sort of diplomatic channels, very quietly. Then the US, the Trump administration came out very publicly and said, we are closing the border between the United States and Canada. So while it appears that it was originally initiated by the Canadian government, the U S government was the first to come public with it. And as a result of that, one could argue diplomatically, that was sort of bad public relations, bad planning, bad public announcement.
So the end result is the border was closed. Then very shortly after that, about three days after the border was officially closed, the Trump administration came forward and said, we are sending U S military troops to our Mexican border and the Canadian border will not be far behind.
And again, through sort of diplomatic channels, the Trudeau government said, look, we haven’t done this in 208 years and we’ve had a tremendously warm, friendly relationship over the last 208 years for the most part, and we don’t think this is a very good idea. And that sort of notion of let’s militarize the US Canadian border with US military troops, very quietly sort of dissipated.
It went away very quickly. But what it left a lot of us in sort of academic circles wondering, is what’s happening behind the scenes? Are there plans to militarize the border? Will the border become more militarized and more heavily fortified over the next 10 years? And the next five years? What’s the end game here? And that was really what the catalyst behind writing this article was all about. Because for so long, the relationship between the two countries has been so close, and for sort of the average citizen, going back and forth over the border has become easier and easier and easier.
So now the thought that that might be somehow hampered or curtailed is alarming to a lot of folks.
Jordan: What does it mean though when the border closes? Cause I’m understanding that there is traffic going through. What’s allowed through? What’s not? What’s the situation on the ground?
Alex: Well in any normal case scenario, there’s sort of two levels of traffic. Well, there are actually several, but the main level is commercial traffic. Those are the trucks that go back and forth largely. Sometimes trains. They go back and forth between the two countries to supply primarily goods or raw materials for making goods, back and forth between the two countries.
Then there is vehicular traffic, which is aside from that commercial traffic, which are typically private citizens that are going back and forth between the two countries. And if someone lives in an area like Windsor, Ontario to Detroit or Buffalo, New York to Fort Eerie, Toronto, Hamilton region, those areas that are cross border, there’s a lot of cross border shopping. There’s a lot of cross border tourism. There’s a lot of cross border entertainment. And those areas, though they overlay an international border, really function as one large metropolitan area. So in this border closure, the commercial traffic is still moving through. So in large part, the goods and services are still moving through the border. But that large portion of private citizens going back and forth for leisure activities or shopping activities, that has ceased. There are folks, Canadian folks that have summer homes in the United States. There are US folks that have summer homes in Canada. There are folks that can’t get to their summer homes. So even though one is a property owner in a foreign country, if they are not a citizen or a resident of that foreign country, It’s tough to get to property that someone owns, which is unusual under these circumstances.
So, and then there’s a very small amount of pedestrian and bicycle traffic that actually goes over the international border crossings. And that has completely ceased. So just very recently, it was announced that the Canadian U S border would “open” with quotation marks around it, so that folks on opposite sides of the border could visit immediate family.
But the definition of immediate family is effectively parents and children. It doesn’t even include siblings for instance, or unmarried partners, for instance, are not considered immediate family. So the definition is very narrow of who will be allowed to cross the border and that sort of broad public citizens sort of group of people that are currently barred from crossing the border for again, the first time in our history.
Jordan: What does that do to a municipal area that sort of exists on both sides of the border? Cause I know this is part of your line of work. I come from a place in Quebec called Stansted, which is actually right on the border. And in fact has a line going through the local library, designating the US and Canada border.
So when you have areas like that, that have functioned as one for so long what happens in those places?
Alex: A lot happens in those places. And I think we are in a sort of period of suspended economic activity right now, I guess is the best way to put that. And essentially I think the US economy has stumbled significantly.
The Canadian economy has stumbled significantly. The economies all over the world have stumbled because of the Coronavirus largely. And because of the measures to try to stem the spread of the Coronavirus. In areas that are cross border areas, so Niagara Falls is one of the few cities in the entire world that straddles an international border.
And though, technically it is two separate municipalities, Niagara falls, Ontario, Niagara falls, New York, it operates as one city. And it’s very interesting that the border closure has effectively curtailed cross-border tourism there almost completely, which is very sad and very difficult.
The one thing that I can casually observe, I’m talking to you today from Buffalo, New York, is that depending on the strength or the weakness of the US and Canadian dollar relationship, we either as US citizens will travel to Canada to do shopping and take advantage of favourable exchange rates, or Canadian consumers will come here to the United States to take advantage of the favourable exchange rates.
And in certain cases too, there’s the issue of just having different stores, greater selection, things like that. But it’s not uncommon in a border city, to travel to the local shopping mall. And as you sort of scan the license plates in the parking lot, the majority of them are from across the border. That isn’t occurring right now.
So not only have the retailers in border cities been hit just by store closures, but they’ve also been hit by a tremendous decrease in foot traffic from cross border shoppers, and that has really been tremendously notable.
Jordan: So what happens in the future? Cause I think the last time they updated the closed border, it was until sometime in July, how long can this state of suspended economic animation continue for before it starts to really harm communities on both sides?
Alex: That’s a really good question. Sadly, I think the harm has already started. As a doctor of American studies, one of, one of my areas of interest is sort of the comparison of life in Canada versus the life in the United States, and to the outside kind of casual viewer or observer, life in the two countries seems relatively similar. We enjoy a similar standard of living. We enjoy similar leisure activities and recreational activities.
We share a lot of the same television programming. But in reality, the two countries are two very different countries with very different regional aspects to them. So the United States, for instance, has nothing like Quebec. The broader confederation of Canada has nothing like the desert Southwest.
So there are areas of the continent that exist that are really quite different. But the behaviours and the values of Canadians and U S citizens have generally over the last 75 years, been in tremendous harmony. What we’re starting to see in the last 10 years, is that for the first time in over two centuries, our countries, Canada and the U S, seem to be a little bit on a bit of a divergent trajectory.
So historically I think the United States has always been the sort of louder sibling of the two, but Canada has always been right there, ready, willing, and able to help the United States. Often in a very unsung capacity. So one of the things that we mentioned in the article in The Conversation is the various things that have gone on, the various historic events that have gone on between the two countries in which Canada has played an unbelievably supportive and in a lot of ways, a very brave role to support the United States. So during the Iranian hostage crisis in the late 1970s into 1980, The Canadian government did amazing things to support the U S community that was on the ground in Iran at that time. That whole story was largely fictionalized in the movie Argo.
During September 11th, the U S closed its airspace, even to its own citizens that were flying in from Europe, and Canada opened their airspace and said, ‘Hey, let’s let people land at Gander in Newfoundland’. So there’s the story of Come From Away, which is a runaway Broadway hit right now.
So that friendship, which has been so closely knitted over 300 years really of shared history, but officially 200 years of shared history, is starting, just starting to fray a little bit. And that’s very concerning. That’s very sort of worrying, I think. There’s a great cartoon, very thought provoking cartoon.
The fellow’s name is McKinnon, and he’s the cartoonist for the Halifax Chronicle Herald. And if you haven’t seen the cartoon, it’s great. There’s a red line that indicates the border between the U S and Canada. There’s a doorway with a maple leaf on it, indicating a closed border to Canada. And there’s a little caricature of Donald Trump standing outside the door, yelling through the closed door, ‘I’m going to have to ask you to keep out for another 30 days’. And what you see on the other side of the door is footprints running away from the door. And then someone has propped up a chair underneath the doorknob on the Canadian side of the border, indicating that you can stand there and scream all you want, but we’re long gone in this discussion.
So very thought provoking as to what’s going on in terms of the shift in public opinion in Canada versus the United States.
Jordan: Yeah. And certainly I’m not going to speak for all Canadians, and that cartoon doesn’t either, but there is a general sense of worry and concern for a friend, staring at what’s going on down there right now.
And it’s really interesting that you mentioned over the last 10 years, because I would have, in my mind assumed that it started with the Trump administration, but what are the roots of it? And what are the dangers, if it continues to shift this way? Because I’m certainly feeling, especially since COVID-19 began, that that is picking up steam, that we want less to do with you guys. No offence.
Alex: I think North Americans in general typically a very short historical memory. And what’s amazing is that my grandmother crossed the border between the U S and Canada, there were no checkpoints, there were no customs. It was just an imaginary line that some of them crossed. That was a little over a hundred years ago.
That then changed significantly during World War II, where there were actually checkpoints put up primarily for security reasons. Those checkpoints never went away. So then we sort of fast forward to September 11th, and one of the things that was very concerning I think to the Canadian government broadly, was what the Canadian government perceived as a militarization of the U S border.
So, you know, again, a comparison, that when we come into the United States from Canada via vehicle, the look of the border crossing is very different than when we drive from the United States into Canada. So the U S side tends to be very fenced and there’s razor wire across the top of the fence. That typically isn’t the case in the opposite direction from the U S into Canada. So one of the concerning things to the Canadian government following September 11 was the use of cameras on the border. So a lot of the cameras, they were far range lens cameras that could see well into Canada. In some cases, five to 10 kilometres inside of the country. So, sort of essentially eavesdropping on the Canadian border.
And that was very concerning. Those, along with the radiation sniffing devices and the helicopter surveillance that was ushered in after September 11, that has not gone away. So it seems like we’re taking gradual steps, one at a time, sort of like the adage, boiling a frog in a pot. We’ve been sort of boiling the frog very slowly and increasingly, though we still tout the longest unmilitarized border in the world, it becomes more and more and more and more and more difficult to cross. So, many of us that live in border communities have what’s called the nexus card that allows us to expedite our passage through customs on either side of the border. It’s a great joint effort between the two countries, but it also means that we are fingerprinted and that our irises are scanned and there are all sorts of biometric measures that are stored by both countries. So we’re giving up, in that case, a little bit of our own personal freedom.
So my question and my concern here would be, in terms of the physical border itself, what controls or what changes will be ushered in as a result of Coronavirus that will never go away? We now have an unprecedented period where the two countries have operated reasonably separately, and what happens as a result of that?
Jordan: Well, I am going to ask you just to speculate, and I know obviously nobody has the answers to this, but Canada is largely handling the pandemic differently from the United States and that is a whole other podcasts that we could do, but you guys are in the process, in many States, of opening up, depending on where you’re at, but it seems to be going very quickly in the United States and there hasn’t been a lot of pickup in terms of masks and that kind of stuff. And Canada has largely, and I’m knocking on wood here, gotten the coronavirus under control. So what happens going forward? Like let’s say in July if the American government wants to open up the border and the Canadian government, or more importantly, the Canadian people, say no? I’m looking at a poll here that was taken in late may, saying that almost half of Canadians feel the border should remain closed until the end of the year, and 60% want it to stay closed through the summer.
Alex: My estimation, just as a sort of armchair estimate, is that it will likely remain closed for much longer than just the end of the summer. I think the reopening is going to be a very slow and very gradual process. You’re right. No one can know the future. No one can know what will happen. But one thing is curious, and this was a larger part of the piece that wound up not being published in The Conversation, curiously, it’s the part that most folks have commented on. In the United States we have 50 separate States and in Canada you have 13 provinces and territories and the provinces and territories are quite large.
And that’s something that is unusual from a US perspective. So considering that the majority of the population in Canada lives in Quebec, Ontario or British Columbia, action on part of three provinces can make a huge and very rapid difference, as opposed to there are, I believe, nine States that border Canada.
So there are a lot more jurisdictions to deal with in the United States. That, coupled with the different structure of the healthcare system in Canada versus the United States. Canada is set up for a more centralized or greater central control over the healthcare system at the provincial level. To footnote that, or again, at the 50,000 foot view, it’s largely referred to as nationalized healthcare. It’s not actually nationalized healthcare, but from an American perspective, from a U S perspective, it’s as close as we have in North America. So what’s interesting about that secondly, is, and this is one of my favourite lines from the article that we published in the conversation, this is not Canada’s first rodeo. And I think that’s a really important line. Canada dealt with SARS a decade ago, more than a decade ago. So when that originally came through, the vector came through Hong Kong and Southeast Asia into Toronto and into the GTA, Canada really learned as a country, Ontario really learned as a province, Toronto really learned as a city. There were various regional municipalities in Canada learned how to communicate very effectively with folks that were riding the go train out of Toronto toward Hamilton.
How to stem, how track and trace, and stem the spread of the initial SARS. So I believe Canada learned a lot in that process. It was very scary as a public health crisis for Canada. And that was something that the U S sort of watched as a news story, but was not touched by that.
We didn’t really experience that here in the United States. Again, as someone who, you know, the closest city, large city, to my house is Toronto. So to see Toronto shut down a few years ago to deal with that was really shocking and surprising. So when this version of coronavirus, which is the cousin virus to what caused the initial SARS outbreak in Canada, a number of years ago. Canada sort of had a system in place that most other countries did not, to be able to help track and trace very rapidly. That coupled with sort of the provincial level healthcare, allowed a very small number of provinces to make very quick rapid decisions that effectively contained the virus in Canada in a way that did not happen in the United States.
And in a way the United States, none of the States were really prepared for it. We had no federal plan. We had no state level plans. So some States like New York state jumped in and said, we’re going to take care of this. And our state leadership did an outstanding job doing that. Other States were confused and really didn’t know what to do.
Wasn’t sure if it was a true looming threat or if it was just being overblown in the media. So they were slower to react to that. And as a result, now, what we have is a very unbalanced sort of outbreak across the United States. So New York is past its first peak, but now States like Texas who were very slow to shut down, very early to reopen, are experiencing a really pronounced peak and rise in infections. My son says too many cooks in the kitchen don’t tend to make very good decisions. And in the United States, we have 50 cooks in the kitchen and it’s tough.
In Canada, the whole constitutional story of Canada. To get at that time, nine, 11, and 12 provincial premiers together to build consensus. It’s much easier to build consensus amongst 13 people than it is with 50 people. And we’ve watched that play out before our very eyes in the media. So the result of that is that we have one country with a very high infection and unfortunately high death rate.
We have another country that neighbours it, that has a much lower rate of per capita infection and a much lower rate of death per capita. Which is if nothing, an interesting case study. If anything, it’s tremendously tragic as well.
Jordan: My last question for you just quickly, off the top of your head, how much of the future of this relationship between the two countries depends on your elections in November?
Alex: Between the people of the two countries, I think we’ll always be warm. I feel like Justin Trudeau answering the question in the press conference the other day, I feel like we should have 20 seconds of awkward silence.
Jordan: Maybe that’s a metaphor for the relationship between us right now. Awkward silence.
Alex: I think it is. I think as I said, the relationship between the people, I think will always be warm. I think we’ll always be affectionate.
I think that, it’s likely that following the elections in November, that things will get better between the two countries. Again, I think throughout the Coronavirus pandemic, Canada has again been a very quiet and very unsung hero for the United States. And I remember in the very first weeks of the pandemic here in upstate New York, going into supermarkets, local supermarkets, that were literally empty. There was very, very little left. And about a week after that, going back to those same supermarkets and they were very well-stocked. But they were not stocked with products from the United States. They were stocked with products from Canadian warehouses. So, you know, instantly you’re able to see brands that are familiar, but when we flip it over, there’s a French label on the opposite side. That was very unusual for a lot of people in upstate New York. So where did all that food come from? Came from Canadian warehouses. My hope is that over time we will mend those political differences, and grow closer and closer. Because we are not only neighbours, but we make up the entirety of the North American continent between the two countries. So it’s in our best interest, and it’s really quite imperative that we work very diligently together get along very well.
Jordan: Yeah. And I need to get back to those outlet shops. So Alex, thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time.
Alex: Thank you, Jordan. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you today.
Jordan: Alex Bitterman of the Alfred State College of Technology at the State University of New York.
That was The Big Story. For more from us head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter @thebigstoryFPN. Write to us by email, the address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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