Trudeau suggests phased Canada-U.S. border re-opening

Shelby Thevenot
Published: June 9, 2021

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is looking at a phased-in approach to reopening the Canadian border, starting with fully vaccinated travellers.

“We are looking at how we're going to start welcoming up tourists in a phased way as the numbers come down in Canada, as the numbers start to come down in the United States and elsewhere around the world,” Trudeau said at a virtual event held June 7, adding that Canada needs to ensure travellers are fully vaccinated before they cross the border.

“We don’t want to risk further outbreaks — a fourth wave would be devastating, not just to the economy but to morale," he said, although it is still unclear what this proof of vaccination would look like.

In order to decide what the phased-in approach will look like, Trudeau said the government will take into account metrics such as international case numbers and global vaccination rates. For example, one possible scenario is the first phase would allow vaccinated travellers to avoid quarantine if they provide a negative COVID-19 test.

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On June 8, the prime minister told reporters fully vaccinated people could be the first allowed to cross the border.

“The steps that will be taken to ease border measures at the right time will be science-based and will be based on the fact that when people have [received] both doses of the vaccine, they are more highly protected and less at risk of transmitting COVID-19 and finding themselves in our health care system," Trudeau said.

The actual reopening date is still not clear. Trudeau did not offer any timeline. The prime minister had previously suggested 75 per cent of Canadians would need to have a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 20 per cent fully vaccinated in order to ease border restrictions.

Canada is expected to meet this threshold in time for the current travel restrictions expire on June 21, according to reports from a meeting with Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and a group of border-city mayors. Participants in that meeting said Blair did not give a definitive reopening date, but left the possibility open for late June.

An anonymous official, who spoke to CBC, says he is doubtful that the first phase of reopening will begin in June, but suggested July is a more likely start date. By July 21, 75 per cent of Canadians are expected to be fully vaccinated, according to reports from the meeting with Blair.

Later this week, the prime minister is scheduled to attend G7 meetings, where there may be more talks about the creation of international vaccine passports that would allow fully vaccinated individuals access to participating countries.

Quarantine rules to be scaled back

Anonymous sources told Bloomberg News the government is planning to loosen the 14-day isolation period for border crossers who are fully vaccinated. Travellers would still need to provide COVID-19 tests, and may be required to quarantine for a shorter period.

The plan is expected be announced within days, although it is subject to change. There is no clear indication as to when the changes would be implemented, or whether Canada would simultaneously open up its borders to travellers from countries other than the U.S.

Canada now has a higher percentage of its population with a single vaccine dose compared to its southern neighbour, however, the portion of the U.S. population that is fully vaccinated is significantly higher at 43 per cent overall.

Trudeau is facing pressure internally and externally to relax restrictions. Influential groups and individuals on both side of the border are calling for a safe reopening. The Tourism Industry Association of Canada, an umbrella organization for Canada's tourism sector, launched a campaign recommending the government end mandatory three-day hotel quarantine for all travellers, among other measures.

From south of the border, New York Democrat Brian Higgins says  it is not fair to allow exemptions for NHL players and not for people separated from their families. In a letter to U.S. Homeland Security, Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik said it is unfair that Canadians can fly into the U.S. and get vaccinated, while fully vaccinated U.S. citizens who own homes in Canada cannot visit their own property.

Canada's border has been closed to non-essential travel since March 2020, shortly after the World Health Organization named the virus a pandemic. Since this time, only exempt individuals and essential travellers have been allowed to come. According to the most recent border services data, land crossings are down to 19 per cent, and air travel is down to 3 per cent of what it was in 2019.

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