Justin Trudeau was long the anti-Trump when it came to borders, once telling refugees in a tweet that Canada's doors were wide open and advocating for a revamped North American free trade deal that would allow cross-border commerce to flourish.
But in the age of the coronavirus, it’s Canada first.
Like many of its like-minded allies in Europe, Canada is turning inward as the virus cases continue to multiply worldwide, and especially in the United States.
Asylum seekers are now being turned back to the U.S. from the “irregular” crossings between brick-and-mortar ports of entry that dot the 5,525-mile-long border. They’re not alone — travelers from both countries can no longer dash across the invisible line for cheaper beer or to see friends who live a few miles away but in another country. And now, most people entering the country after Wednesday will be legally required to enter quarantine for two weeks — something the government had already been advising to returning travelers.
The prime minister has signaled he's open to tightening the border further if the U.S. becomes the new epicenter of Covid-19. President Donald Trump's eagerness to stop social distancing in just weeks to help jump-start the U.S. economy could force the issue.
"We feel the measures we have taken to restrict flow across the border to ... goods and essential travel is the important thing we are doing to keep Canadians safe,” Trudeau said Tuesday. “Of course, as the situation evolves, we will be ready to shift our posture."
By Wednesday, his government announced it would invoke the Quarantine Act at midnight, requiring anyone entering Canada except for “essential” personnel to isolate themselves from society for 14 days under threat of criminal penalties.
“We are, of course, thinking very carefully about additional measures,” Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Wednesday.
Over about a 10-day period, Canadian ministers have shifted from arguing against wide-scale border closures to — in a matter of days — closing its doors to most non-Canadians and then to U.S. travelers not crossing for work.
“This is not any kind of a shift in our government’s views,” she said. “This is about taking very practical steps to protect the health and safety of Canadians.”
One reason the Trudeau government is invoking the Quarantine Act now is that many travelers returning from other countries haven’t realized the severity of the problem, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Wednesday.
“We have heard a number of reports of Canadians from individual citizens and others, and through other means, that people are not understanding that this [14-day period] is absolutely essential to protect the health of their fellow Canadians and their loved ones and their community,” she said.
The Public Health Agency of Canada does not have statistics on how many Covid-19 cases diagnosed in Canada resulted from travel, including travel specifically from the U.S., a spokesperson said.
Canadian border officials will take down the contact information of everyone entering the country beginning Thursday, and will then “follow up with them to be sure that they are indeed self-isolating,” Freeland said.
“But let me emphasize,” she added, “you should be doing it already.”
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said Wednesday one person has been turned back from Canada to the U.S., and one individual was sent back to Canada when trying to cross into the States under the new border restrictions.
"While we are dealing with the very many challenges of containing this illness and placing appropriate restrictions for the movement of people across the Canada-U.S. border, we believe this was the right thing to do at this time,” he said.
But it remains to be seen whether Ottawa might further tighten those limits around workers trying to cross the border.
Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos said earlier this week in an interview with Maclean’s that “further restrictions” on “the movement of workers” will likely need to be weighed by Cabinet. "However important the work of truck drivers is, the health and security of Canadians is the most important,” he said.
Freeland thanked truck drivers specifically on Wednesday, saying the “important work” they do is necessary for Canadians “to actually survive.”
Trudeau is likely to face more pressure on the southern frontier, as Trump signals he wants Americans back to life as they once knew it by mid-April. If Covid-19 cases continue to increase exponentially in the U.S., the prime minister will be left to grapple with how to balance the necessary trade of food and medical supplies that flows over the shared border with the goal of “planking” the coronavirus curve within Canada.
Freeland defended the border measures taken thus far Wednesday, saying she doesn’t think they contradict the government’s “core beliefs.”
"We will always put the health and safety of Canadians first,” she said, “and I think all of us feel very clear and very confident that that is the right direction.”