The current pandemic has changed reality for all of us. It has taken away aspects of life we considered rights and reminded us that they were only privileges. One thing we all took for granted was freedom of movement, and to see who we want, when we want, even if they happened to live in another country.
I’ve spent most of my life in Seattle and bounced between the US and Canada without much thought. When my boyfriend moved from Montreal to Vancouver about one year ago, it seemed like the perfect way to make our relationship plausible. Suddenly, instead of suffering through months apart, we were together almost every weekend.
Then the unthinkable happened, on March 21, 2020, the US and Canada agreed to close the border to non-citizens/residents (exempting commerce and public health workers) for 30 days to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and we were suddenly unwelcome in each other’s countries. A few weeks later, the two sides agreed to extend the closure until May 21, 2020, and I quickly realized that my two-year relationship was at the whim of two governments.
Americans and Canadians have historically enjoyed a very close partnership, which has allowed for easy transfer of goods and people across the border. However, the historic closure is seriously questioning the future of the cross-border relationship, as well as my own.
The US-Canada border
In the past, the two countries worked together during international crises. During WWII the two governments essentially abolished the border to allow for seamless collaboration in the joint wartime effort. The only other time in modern history the border closed was in the aftermath of 9/11.
However, during the current global crisis, the media coverage has painted a strained partnership, often implying that the US and Canada were at odds in their efforts to contain COVID-19. A large order of N95 masks destined for hard-hit Quebec was reportedly intercepted in Ohio, and the US manufacturing company 3M was told not to provide masks to other countries, including Canada. Even more surprising, President Trump alluded to the possibility of militarizing the border, something that had only been done once, during the American Civil War. In Canada, Deputy Prime Minister Christina Freeland described the possibility as “very damaging to our relationship,” a not-so-subtle warning that efforts should be collaborative, not unilateral.
These reports are the exact opposite of the complete cross-border cooperation experts say is necessary to fight the virus. The constant COVID-19 news coverage already provided enough anxiety to my daily life; the addition of primarily pessimistic reports about the cooperation between the US and Canada made me increasingly uneasy about the future.
Border closures, travel restrictions, and a Canadian boyfriend abroad
In early March, my boyfriend flew to Brazil for a month-long assignment, and at the time, I figured I’d see him again a few weeks later. Not long after his arrival, the first cases were reported in Brazil while new cases rose across the US and Canada, and stay-at-home orders started to be implemented. I briefly wondered if he should come home early.
A few weeks later, his client canceled the project, São Paulo announced statewide travel restrictions, and my anxiety increased each day.
“I know you want me to get on the first flight out of here, but I think it makes sense to wait out quarantine instead of risking travel,” he told me over the phone. We were still naive enough to think the situation would improve in the near future.
The next day, the US and Canada announced a joint border closure without exceptions (the initial closure announcements excluded US/Canadian citizens from movement restrictions), and the airline canceled his flight home, without a rebooking. My anxiety kicked into overdrive, and I frantically researched flights. I quickly came to the sinking realization that alternatives were few and far between. Direct flights to Canada didn’t exist, the best itinerary we could find required two layovers in the US, first Houston then in San Francisco before his final leg to Vancouver.
The media’s coverage of constantly changing global travel restrictions made me wary of his ability to transfer through the US, even though there wasn’t another way back to Canada. It seemed new policies were put into place daily. In the days leading up to his flight, I triple-checked the US State Department’s travel restrictions, Global Affairs Canada’s policies, and panic called United Airlines to verify he’d be allowed to travel through the US as a Candian citizen.
Everything assured me Canadians were still allowed to transfer through the US from abroad, as long as they had proof of onward travel to Canada and hadn’t been to barred countries (as of writing China, Iran, and most of Europe) within 14 days of travel. In order to be allowed back in Canada, my boyfriend needed proof of citizenship and to be symptom-free on the day of his flight.
Despite reading and hearing assurances, I didn’t breathe easy until he texted that he was at the gate ready to board. There were a grand total of three flights out of Sao Paulo’s international airport that day, including a canceled one to New York, that he’d almost booked. I didn’t fully exhale in relief until he’d landed in Vancouver, even though we still had a closed border between us. At least he was home safe.
The future of cross-border cooperation and my relationship
While the media has portrayed the relationship as currently rocky, experts on American-Canadian relations provided a much more positive outlook. Former Canadian Diplomat Colin Robertson recently said in an interview that despite not initially coordinating efforts, the two countries are “…approaching this, I think, now, in tandem”.
The Wilson Institute’s Canadian Studies Center discussion between international affairs experts specializing in US-Canada relations supported Robertson’s statement. The panelists agreed that the two countries are finally working together, and many mentioned that they’re seeing more cooperation than they did during the post-9/11 border closure.
My long-term outlook significantly improved after listening to experts, although I recognized crossing the border will likely change, as did most travel post-9/11. Currently, the number of cases at home here in Washington State are declining, and Canadian models show the country is unlikely to reach the drastic numbers of other countries. These improvements are mostly thanks to social-distancing measures and travel restrictions, cooperative efforts that the Wilson Institute’s experts agreed are necessary in helping both countries fight COVID-19. This is positive news for the future of my relationship as cross-border cooperation increases the chance that the ease of travel will return.
Yet at the same time, short-term, it’s hard to reconcile my personal struggle with the pandemic at large. At the beginning of all this, I didn’t really allow myself to feel sad or worry much about the future. I was so preoccupied with getting my boyfriend home from Brazil that I didn’t have the energy to think beyond that. Now that I’ve had some time to pause and reflect, all I feel is unease. I feel an invisible dark cloud hovering above me, made up of envy as I watch others isolate themselves with their partners, uncertainty for the future, and guilt over being upset, when so many other lives have been more negatively affected.
I never thought I’d miss the several hours’ drive north and answering endless questions at the border every other weekend. I’d also never imagined there would be a day when my US passport would prohibit me from entering Canada, a testament to the close relationship all those international relations experts so heavily praised. Like many things pre-pandemic, I took cross-border travel for granted and am now faced with the uncomfortable awareness that it’s a privilege that can be taken away very rapidly.
I’m starting to realize that questions concerning the future of the US-Canada relationship are very applicable to my own. What will our future look like? Will we appreciate each other more? Become better communicators? Appreciate the value of partnership? Realize we need each other more than we thought? The world will never be the same after COVID-19, and only time will tell what our new global reality looks like. However, I know I’ll never take a trip across the northern border for granted again, and I’ll be a bit more thankful for each wait in the customs line.