June 18, 2020
by Pierre-Alexandre Beylier, an, Associate Professor in North American Studies at the University of Grenoble-Alpes. He had a Ph.D from the University of Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle and wrote a thesis focused on the changes that the Canada/US border has experienced since September 11, 2001.
People often say that history repeats itself but what has been unfolding at the Canada/US border for the last three months is all too familiar.
In fact, the territorial lock-down that the Trump administration has put in place is reminiscent of what happened in the wake of 9/11. Back then, the US had unilaterally shut down its land borders for over a day and its airspace for three days, thus cutting itself off from the rest of the world in a defensive reflex.
To deal with the current health crisis that has been spreading over the world, the US response has been quite similar. After banning the entry of visitors from China in early February and suspending all flights with the European Union on March 12, Washington took the decision – jointly with its North American neighbors – to close down its land borders as of March 21. Although less radical than the measure put in place in 2001 in that it only aims at “temporarily restricting non-essential travel” whether for vacation or recreation purposes, to paraphrase Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, this decision has a long-lasting effect as it has already been renewed twice and has just been extended until the end of July.
Even if cross-border commuters and trade are exempted from this restriction – which was not the case in 2001 – it is worth underscoring the fact that the two countries cannot afford to sever all cross-border links given the highly integrated nature of their economies. The two partners trade more than $1.7 billion dollars in goods and services every day and 400 000 people cross their shared border daily. Besides, in 2001, the closing of the border and the heightened security measures deployed in the days following its reopening, had crippled the auto industry, among other sectors and forced Ford to shut down five plants in order to make up for the economic loss. Today, even if the border remains open to trade, the flows of goods have experienced some kind of decline in March – 9% for exports and 8% imports as opposed to February.
Because it is dependent on cross-border tourism, one of the regions that has been hit the most by the closing of the border is the Pacific North West. Located between Seattle and Vancouver, the region is linked by countless cross-border ties. A survey carried out in 2018 my Melissa Fenucci from the International Mobility and Trade Corridor Program showed that 1/3 of the people crossing the Canada/US border in the region did it on a frequent basis – at least once a week. In terms of reasons for crossing, 20% cross to go on vacation in either country, 19% for shopping purposes and 18% for recreation. The other two reasons are purchasing gas (14%) – because it is cheaper in the US due to tax differentials – and visiting friends and family (13%). Only 2% of people commute to the other country for work. In other words, almost all cross-border travelers fall into the “non-essential travel” category and have thus been impacted by the closing of the 49th parallel.
As a result of this territorial lockdown put in place by the two North American neighbors, the Blaine Port of Entry – which is the third busiest one along the Canada/US border after Buffalo/Niagara and Detroit/Windsor – has witnessed a sharp decline in traffic since March. Only 110 942 passenger vehicles entered the US in March as opposed to 331 998 at the same period last year. The slump is even more telling in April insofar as only 8 631 passenger vehicles crossed the border, down from 348 387 a year before. The economic impact of a prolonged closing of the border can be significant when you know that nationally, American visitors brought $4.5 billion to the Canadian economy last summer.
And yet, surprisingly enough, polls conducted in the last few weeks have shown that a great majority of Canadians – between 70 and 83% – are not in favor of lifting travel restrictions. In details, 40% support the idea of maintaining the border closed until the end of the summer and a further 20% until a vaccine against Covid-19 is found. A poll conducted by DART & maru/BLUE has also highlighted regional disparities between Alberta, where 31% of respondents said they were in favor of a reopening of the border and the Atlantic provinces, where only 9% of people share a similar opinion on the topic. Alberta being the most conservative Canadian province, it surely shares some cultural and ideological affinity with its neighbor to the south even though individual cross-border links are less numerous given the fact there is no major urban center close to the border. And yet, what these polls suggest is a shift in perception among Canadians vis-à-vis their shared border with the United States. While traditionally in favor of an open border – it was known before 9/11 as “the longest undefended border in the world” and Canadians have often voiced their concern for the so-called “thickening of the border” that resulted from the anti-terrorism policy implemented by the US – it seems that they now embrace this territorial lock down as an acceptable and efficient response, probably in reaction to the Trump administration’s questionable management of the sanitary crisis that has already cost the life of 100 000 people.
In all, what is unfolding at the moment at the Canada/US border is symptomatic of two phenomena that borders have been facing throughout the world. The first has to do with some kind of “border obsession” that has led countries to erect their borders as defensive shields in the last 30 years to respond to several issues – whether illegal immigration, terrorism, drug-trafficking and even the economic crisis of 2008/2009. Most of the time, these policies are put in place regardless of their impact on local populations that are taken hostages and see their daily lives complicated by new rules and regulations pertaining to border security. The current pandemic follows this “rebordering” trend. It has even reinforced it in that even Europe, which has stood as a model of free circulation in the last 30 years has closed its internal borders to block the spread of the virus. The second phenomena has to do with a new function assigned to borders, which, to paraphrase Anne-Laure Amilhat Szary, have become “filters” that sort out flows. Between the US and Canada, the Smart Border deployed in the wake of 9/11 in order to strike a balance between security and facilitation has been sorting out pre-approved travelers through its facilitation program, Nexus. Now, the filter has become even narrower because only “essential travelers” are allowed across, meaning “essential” to the functioning of the neo-liberal economy. The questions now are how long this situation will last and what the impact will be on the sectors that heavily depend on cross-border travel and not just cross-border trade.
Pierre-Alexandre Beylier is an Associate Professor in North American Studies at the University of Grenoble-Alpes. A former student of the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Cachan, he got his Ph.D from Paris 3/Sorbonne University. His thesis examined the changes that the Canada/US border has experienced since September 11, 2001. An updated version was published in 2016 by the Presses Universitaires de Rennes: Canada/Etats-Unis: les enjeux d’une frontière. His research now focuses on border towns and their residents in order to study issues pertaining to practices, representation and identity. His books and published articles are now available via his ResearchGate profile.