Calls to open the Canada-U.S. border to more than just essential travel are growing louder in both countries, as politicians and groups within the Canadian auto industry fret over the economic impact of the ongoing restrictions.
New York Congressman Brian Higgins on Feb. 24 wrote to U.S. President Joe Biden to “challenge the administration to work with me to reach a goal for a partial re-opening of the Northern Border by Memorial Day of this year with a full re-opening by July 4 of this year.”
The ongoing closure has been in place since March 21, 2020. It is reviewed on a monthly basis. The United States will celebrate Memorial Day on May 31, 2021.
Flavio Volpe, head of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, said “informed speculation” points to a May 21 opening, “but, for sure, by July, somewhere in that period.”
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“By that weekend in May, we’re talking about a U.S.A. that the president declared [on Thursday] night a country in which every person will have full access to vaccines,” Volpe said, referencing Biden’s address to the nation.
In Windsor, Ont., which shares a border with Detroit, Mich., Rakesh Naidu, the head of the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the crossing should have been opened already.
“May 21 is good, but we would have liked to have seen it open even earlier,” Naidu said. “It can’t come any sooner. We can’t really wait any longer.”
He said the closure presents serious challenges to business, particularly in the region’s robust auto parts supply and tool-and-die sectors.
“Companies here, that have existing contracts they have to service — or if they’re chasing new business —continues to be a challenge,” Naidu said. “It’s putting them at the risk of losing contracts or not being able to win new contracts. The long-term viability of business is affected when you can’t really go and bid for new business.”
Neither Naidu or Volpe put a monetary value on lost — or potentially lost — business.
Rob Wildeboer, the Executive Chairman and co-founder of Canadian auto supplier Martinrea International Inc., told Automotive News Canada he hasn’t heard “anything definite” about the reopening of the border.
“Our argument is we need to open up the border for our industry, and frankly go from there,” he said.
Currently, the border is open to the flow of essential goods, including auto parts. But it’s thicker for essential workers. While they are able to cross, people need to show a pattern of regularity in doing so in order to be seen as essential and avoid a 14-day quarantine, according to federal rules. A negative test is required upon entry, as well.
Stephen Mackenzie, head of the Windsor-Essex Economic Development Corporation said his organization has an ombudsman that is currently working on careful wording of letters for workers who believe they are essential, a definition that is subjective at times, he said.
Mackenzie called the situation "difficult" and a "fine line."
Volpe called it “a game of quarantine roulette” for parts engineers and executives who aren’t crossing on a regular basis but need to do so in an effort to win business or service a customer on a factory floor.
“It would be impossible” to open the border and still enforce such strict health and safety measures, Volpe said.
“How would you enforce a mandatory quarantine if the border was open as business as usual?” he asked.
He said any opening would come with guidance — “making up, being careful, because this isn’t over.”
Naidu agreed, that “health trumps everything.”
“But there are ways we can ease the restrictions,” he said.
Higgins, in his letter to Biden, wrote that “our relationship with Canada requires special attention.”
“Given the economic and social costs the border closure has had on the region, we must prioritize efforts to expand essential traveler exceptions and plan for an incremental reopening now,” he wrote.
A request for comment from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office was forwarded to Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair.
“Until the conditions on both sides of the border change very substantively, the measures at our borders will remain intact,” Mary-Liz Power, press secretary for the minister, wrote in an email to Automotive News Canada. “Today, the Prime Minister said, ‘We will listen to experts on when we can start easing restrictions, but the safety of Canadians needs to come first.’
“We will continue to evaluate the best public health information available to us to make a decision on when and how to reopen our border,” Power said. “As Minster Blair has said, ‘until we can be assured, based on the advice that we receive from our public health officials and our evaluation of those conditions is such that we believe that those restrictions can be lifted safely, we'll keep them in place.’
“This decision will be made in Canada, with the best interest of Canadians as our top priority.”
Speaking to CTV’s Your Morning Friday, Trudeau said vaccination rates and case counts would determine when the Liberal government would reopen the border.