The freer flow of personnel across the Canada-U.S. border since its partial reopening Aug. 9 has helped Canadian automakers inch toward normalcy, though ongoing supply-chain problems and restrictions on Canadians entering the United States will keep border tensions at moderate levels for the immediate future.
“Given the current resurgence of the virus, vaccine rates stuck where they are, we could still be dealing with challenges in terms of cross-border movement for some time to come,” said Brian Kingston, president and CEO of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association (CVMA), which represents the Detroit Three automakers in Canada.
A welcome first step was the reopening of Canadian crossings to nonessential travellers from the United States last month after roughly 17 months closed, Kingston said. But it is still far from business as usual at assembly plants north of the border.
“The big question is when will the U.S. side of the border reopen for land crossings,” Kingston said.
The answer, for now, is not until at least Nov. 22. While the White House said on Monday that the United States will ease foreign travel restrictions to the country beginning in November, allowing foreigners in if they have proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test, the changes don’t apply to land crossings along the Canadian and Mexican borders.
Still, the partial reopening has improved the situation at the border to the point it is now more of an “inconvenience,” said David Adams, president and CEO of the Global Automakers of Canada (GAC).
ONE KEY HURDLE REMAINS
Before Aug. 9, technical personnel from the United States were having trouble getting into Canada. Canadian staff heading south, on the other hand, have typically had the ability to fly into the United States. Driving adds hurdles, even for essential travelers.
“Getting the U.S. border open again for land traffic is sort of the last key initiative,” Adams said.
Putting aside the microchip shortage, which continues to force plants across North America to take downtime, the overseas automakers that the GAC represents have typically been able to get their hands on the parts they need, Adams said.
Canadian ports are one area still causing some problems. Getting the trade hubs operating efficiently, particularly getting goods cleared and moving across the country, has been a long-running strain. The problem is starting to be ironed out, Adams said.
The tight supply of microchips is also the primary parts concern for Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, all of which have been forced to idle production at Canadian plants for periods this summer. It is a headwind the three automakers will continue to face until more supply comes online, said Kingston of the CVMA.
“While there have been serious efforts, particularly in the U.S., to try and put in place some domestic chip manufacturing capacity, this takes time,” he said. “It’s not the type of thing that you flip a switch and suddenly production is up and running.”
DOUBTS ON U.S. ACTION
The U.S. land border with Canada will remain shut to nonessential travel until at least Oct. 21.
With little certainty on a timeline for reopening and concerns over the fourth wave injecting new doubts, Kingston said government should clarify who is cleared to cross.
“Just having the certainty that when you get to the border you’re deemed essential and you can move across without further delay is really important,” he said.
Particularly for assignments handed down on short notice, proving a trip meets that standard is not always hassle-free for technical or research and development staff, Kingston said.
In the ideal scenario, the U.S. side of the border would open sooner rather than later. Barring that, Kingston hopes U.S. authorities smooth out the process to ensure auto sector personnel needing to cross the border are not hung up or turned away.