So Close, but Drifting Apart
As the COVID pandemic potentially ends, Canada and the United States are drifting apart, both politically and culturally.
“Why are you going up there to buy books?”
A week ago, I crossed the U.S.-Canadian border for the first time since the pandemic, and since Canada dropped the requirement that anyone entering the country have a negative result on a PCR test less than 72 hours old. I presented a negative rapid antigen test that I took the previous day in the North Country of New York–it was a flash of luck that I found one in the small town I was visiting–for Canada now requires a form of COVID test that few American pharmacies or clinics perform. (The Canadian government has just announced that it will stop requiring any COVID test on April 1.) The Canada Border Services officer accepted the test result as I entered into Ontario (I saw no other cars crossing the border in either direction late on that Saturday morning), but was skeptical of my description of the visit as a trip to a Montreal-area bookstore that would last a few hours. Instead, I was given instructions for a possible PCR test on my eighth day in Canada. At the end of the afternoon I crossed back into Vermont, once again the only car in sight, where Customs and Border Protection also challenged my description of a day trip, and made me bring my Canadian books inside their station for a closer inspection.
I am used to border inspectors reacting badly when I tell them I am an academic crossing the border to do research. Scholars (and former diplomats) sit across a cultural gulf from law enforcement officials, the same gulf that drives our polarized politics. But the empty border stations and the unusual questioning were a stark reminder that things are different at the border, and may be that way for a while. After September 11, we spoke of the “thickening” of the Canada-U.S. border, as inspections became more detailed to prevent terrorists and weapons from entering the United States. The measures remained after the Global War on Terror receded. During the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the border was closed altogether, and the Canadian and U.S. governments clearly grew accustomed to private citizens not having a legitimate reason to cross it. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, before the pandemic 80% of land border crossings were for same-day trips. The border inspectors I encountered now consider those day trips suspicious for reasons that go beyond health. (I am convinced that registering visits in advance on the ArriveCAN platform will become a permanent requirement.)
Canada and the United States have a uniquely complicated relationship, one that goes beyond foreign ministries, beyond the institutions of government altogether. The economies are integrated more deeply than with a free trade agreement. As recently as the Obama Administration, American and Canadian officials liked to say that Canada and the United States did not trade, they built things together. Car parts cross the border multiple times on their way to final assembly, and when trucker protests closed the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor for a week, it closed automobile plants in both Michigan and Ontario. Citizens of each country consume the other’s culture (Americans are not always aware they are doing it), and for most Americans and Canadians, each arguably is the only “foreign country” that can be comfortably visited for a short trip in one’s car. Neither country feels too foreign to the other’s residents, and even Quebec, while francophone, is resolutely North American culturally. It feels very natural for the American Political Science Association to hold its 2022 annual meeting in Montreal. Canadians often anguish over the implications of such integration, even though each country has a distinct identity and history that justify existence as separate states, and much of their worry is the result of Freud’s narcissism of minor differences.
The September 11 terrorist attacks were a jolt to bilateral relations, and there was a curiosity to the way many Americans eagerly accepted the idea that the terrorists entered the United States from Canada. The countries clearly began to be pushed apart, with the Canadian refusal to participate in the 2003 invasion of Iraq a sore point with the Bush Administration. Tension also grew as administrations of opposite political stripes have governed during most of the past two decades. Despite this, individuals from both sides of the border continued to live and do things together. The coronavirus pandemic brought this to a halt. Merchandise trade declined, trade in services nearly stopped as they required people performing services to cross the border, the tourist trade stopped, border communities suffered deep economic blows, and cross-border personal relationships atrophied for two years.
Paralleling this has been a notable lack of cooperation between the Canadian and United States governments during the pandemic. When the pandemic erupted in March 2020, the Trudeau government wanted to close the border as a health measure, but hesitated because it thought the Trump Administration would see it as a provocation. The two governments quickly agreed to close the border simultaneously in both directions–temporarily–on March 21, 2020. This was the end of coordination at the border. The border remained closed until August 2021, when Canada opened the land border to vaccinated and tested Americans. The United States did not reciprocate until November, with different health requirements.
Relations between Ottawa and Washington were tense throughout the Trump Administration, as Canada feared that Trump would abrogate the North American Free Trade Agreement and introduce other measures aimed at Canadian goods and services. While NAFTA was renegotiated into the USMCA, it was less a matter of retooling and deepening integration and more one of simply saving the agreement from cancellation. President Trump never visited Ottawa, and he verbally and electronically jousted with Prime Minister Trudeau several times. During those four years, Ottawa often felt relieved when Washington ignored it. Canadians assumed that the relationship would go back to normal once Joe Biden, a long-time internationalist and someone well-known to Western allies, assumed the presidency. Biden’s administration has been largely indifferent to Canada. There has been no traditional one-day visit to Ottawa, even though Biden is now traveling post-pandemic. There was not a Senate-confirmed ambassador resident in Ottawa from August 2019 to December 2021. Biden’s proposal, now in abeyance, to reserve a tax credit for electric cars to those constructed entirely in American plants, in defiance of cross-border supply chains, perturbed Canadians, as did his statement in the State of the Union address that “we will buy American to make sure everything from the deck of an aircraft carrier to the steel on highway guardrails [is] made in America.”
The current philosophies of the Biden Administration and the Trudeau government in regard to the relationship are stated in the “Roadmap for a Renewed U.S.-Canada Partnership” released one month into Biden’s presidency. The document does not speak to bilateral issues in any depth, focusing instead on multilateral and global issues, including recovery from COVID, climate change, diversity and inclusion, and global alliances. There is no reference to the way the United States and Canada have been integrated, that they share bilateral institutions, or that Canada-U.S. relations “blur the line between international and domestic affairs,” as Sands and Carment put it. Aside from a bullet point about NORAD, this statement reads exactly like one drafted for any other Western ally. The only references to the border are to transnational crime and a 27-word point promising unspecified “consultation” on reopening the border, yet Canada’s testing changes at the border have been unilateral. There is no commitment to restarting the NEXUS program.
In a statement noting the one-year anniversary of the roadmap, the two governments state that the goal of the bilateral relationship is to promote “democracy, diversity, and equity.” These are the goals of American foreign policy in general, per the Administration’s “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance.”
The bilateral relationship is moribund, and that reflects the shellshock of the COVID pandemic, the hangover from the Trump Administration, and the Trudeau government’s disinterest in foreign policy prior to the Ukraine war and its Laurentian Liberal reluctance to get too close to the United States. There is no great bilateral project to kick off a new era of cooperation, one on par with NATO and NORAD during the Cold War or the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement/NAFTA for the post-Cold War era. There needs to be one to force a reset of the relationship, and Canadians need to do some hard thinking to determine what that project may be. To add to the challenge, this will need to take place with what Michael Adams has called “the continuing cultural divergence of Canada and the United States” in the background.