Frontier policy

Canada, Covid and Borders

Mathew Preston
April 20, 2020
When the Canada-U.S. land border (“the world’s longest undefended border”) was largely closed in March because of Covid, few expected it to last this long. Mathew Preston writes that the virus’s rapid spread has reinvigorated the debate about borders – national and provincial. History shows that when a country closes its gates, they take a long time to reopen.
Frontier policy

Canada, Covid and Borders

Mathew Preston
April 20, 2020
When the Canada-U.S. land border (“the world’s longest undefended border”) was largely closed in March because of Covid, few expected it to last this long. Mathew Preston writes that the virus’s rapid spread has reinvigorated the debate about borders – national and provincial. History shows that when a country closes its gates, they take a long time to reopen.
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March 2020. A shabby overfilled boat of Arab and South Asian migrants rolls and pitches precariously on the metallic blue Aegean Sea as a Greek Coast Guard vessel cuts back and forth in front, throwing up a dangerous wake meant to halt its progress. An unmarked zodiac then pulls up alongside the migrants trying to make their way from Turkey to Greece. These Greek defenders deliberately bump the migrant boat, then thrust a long pole at the vessel in an attempt to push it away from Greek waters. When that doesn’t work, the pole becomes a weapon to batter the passengers, one of whom vainly holds up a bright green inflatable toy as a shield. Later, the Coast Guard fires shots into the water, putting an exclamation point on the encounter. The message is clear: Do not cross our border!

Drama on the Aegean Sea: A migrant boat is repelled by the Greek Coast Guard last month.

Just a few years ago, it was received wisdom among the world’s Biggest Thinkers that borders had become essentially meaningless. In 2015, 1.3 million migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia flooded  into the outstretched arms of Europe’s moral leaders, who heralded a new era in compassionate diplomacy. The Germans, as is their habit, invented a new word for it: Willkommenskultur, the culture of welcoming. The process seemed unstoppable, the main question being, how soon would similar policies be adopted in North America? 

Set against the U.S. presidential election campaign of Donald Trump – he of the widely-derided Border Wall fixation − it was generally accepted that a torch had been passed. The “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” immortalized in Emma Lazarus’ famous poem and emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty, would henceforth find their golden door in Europe, not North America. A year later, the UN’s General Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration sought to establish borderless one-way travel for all who wanted it, whether they were legitimate refugees, or simply seeking a better life in another country.

Preston - Inset2 (above)
Wither Willkommenskultur? Despite many fanciful earlier claims, the notion of borderless migration now seems hopelessly naïve, given an inexhaustible supply of migrants. (Below, the Balkan route into Germany)
Wither Willkommenskultur? Despite many fanciful earlier claims, the notion of borderless migration now seems hopelessly naïve, given an inexhaustible supply of migrants. (Below, the Balkan route into Germany)

Today, such sentiments seem entirely impractical, and hopelessly naive. In numerous European countries, the incoming surge has all-but halted and the policy clock is being rolled back. As the Greek Coast Guard was ramming the migrant boatload, Greek soldiers were lobbing tear gas and firing warning shots at others trying to breach land crossings from Turkey. But for many Greeks, even this government effort was insufficient. Last month, gangs of armed citizens took to patrolling their own border – to “defend the gates of Greece, and of Europe,” as one member of this citizens’ militia put it to an AFP reporter. Such inclinations are not limited to Greece. Across the continent, a new Fortress Europe is taking shape – and with full popular support.

On the other side of the Atlantic the rapid spread of the coronavirus was causing an equally surprising set of circumstances. The world’s longest undefended border – across which 200,000 people and $2.7B worth of goods travel every day – was suddenly closed to all but essential commerce. There was even talk from Trump of sending U.S. troops to bolster his nation’s northern defences. It’s been centuries since anyone on either side of the 49th parallel felt the need to discuss militarizing the boundary between Canada and the U.S.

Even the world’s longest underdefended border between Canada and the United States was threatened by the coronavirus.

Within these two countries, new borders have also sprung up between internal jurisdictions. Ottawa residents wishing to cross the Ottawa River to Gatineau, Quebec now face police roadblocks at all possible routes – the Champlain, Chaudière, Portage, Alexandra and Macdonald-Cartier bridges, as well as the Cumberland-Masson Ferry. Any visitors deemed non-essential can expect to be denied entry. Similar checkpoints have sprung up between numerous other provinces and territories, as well as on First Nations reserves. 

Canadian constitutional scholars are now debating whether the mobility rights enshrined in section 6 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms permit such restrictions on citizens crossing provincial borders to visit family, shop, work or for any other reason. Until last month, no one would have considered such a possibility worth the air time. Whether legal or not, it’s become a fact of life. Some morning traffic reports have begun offering information on what police barricades drivers can expect to encounter on their daily travels. It is a stunning turn of events, both in substance and the speed with which this became routine.

Suddenly borders matter: Police roadblocks, such as this one at the Portage Bridge in Gatineau, Quebec, quickly sprang up at provincial borders across Canada.

Similar defensive reactions were apparent in the U.S. as well. When Pennsylvania announced it was closing its liquor stores in mid-March to limit the spread of the coronavirus, neighbouring counties in West Virginia immediately banned liquor sales to non-residents to stop cross-border shopping. In Delaware, police were pulling over out-of-state drivers and telling them to go home. In an instant, fellow citizens and next-door neighbours became “outsiders”. (Pennsylvania eventually rescinded its ill-advised liquor store shut-down.)

Suddenly – everywhere − borders matter. 

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. According to prevailing elite opinion, borders were on their way to becoming a “barbarous relic”, on par with the gold standard, colonialism and the death penalty. At the end of the Cold War, the “unipolar moment” of unchallenged and purportedly eternal Western dominance handed us a hyper-globalized world in which borders faded away to facilitate just-in-time supply chains and jet-setting knowledge-economy workers. As incomes rose everywhere, the unstoppable march of history would give rise to mighty and diverse cosmopolitan urban centres and eventually erase the entire concept of nation states. Even distinct national cultures would be swept away by this irresistible march of progress.

But events have a funny way of interrupting history’s inevitability. While COVID-19 has clearly accelerated the trend and broadened it to more countries, borders were on their way back well before Wuhan’s wet market became a topic of conversation.

The bizarre proto-naval action in the Aegean Sea was prompted not by fears of physical contagion, but the machinations of Turkish politics. Efforts by Turkey’s autocratic president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to create a buffer zone between his country and Syria to enhance Turkish security has put him in conflict with Russia and Syria’s Assad regime. This in turn triggered a power play with the European Union. 

In 2015, during the great migration of Syrian refugees into Europe, Erdogan cut a deal with the EU to stem the flow of migrants through his country in exchange for US$6.8 billion to build refugee facilities. Crucially, the deal also allowed visa-free travel for Turks throughout most of Europe. Critics warned that this meant the de facto end of Europe, but were denounced as racists; Angela Merkel’s Willkommenskultur was in the ascendant. According to Erdogan, however, only half the pledged money ever showed up. Last winter he began threatening to unleash the estimated 3.7 million Syrian refugees inside his country on Europe if more money wasn’t forthcoming.

Preston - Inset 6 (above)
Border brinkmanship: Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (above) recently announced migrants in his country could leave for Europe, prompting violence at Turkish/Greek border crossings (below).
Border brinkmanship: Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (above) recently announced migrants in his country could leave for Europe, prompting violence at Turkish/Greek border crossings (below).

To prove he wasn’t bluffing, on February 28, Erdogan encouraged those refugees to leave if they wished. Thousands tried their luck at the Greek border or along the rivers and coasts that separate the two rival countries. This time, however, the locals on the other side of the border weren’t having it, EU rules be damned. The Greeks also received encouragement from countries such as Italy and Hungary that had in the meantime taken similar steps to stem the migrant flood. And this time, the rest of Europe appeared uninterested in defending the high-minded principles it hailed just four years ago. Even supporters of migration aren’t being very welcoming. Together, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal have agreed to accept a mere 1,500 unaccompanied or sick children currently in Greece. In addition, the presence of COVID-19  on the Greek island of Lesbos – a way station on a major migration route – means few other refugees will be making their way any deeper into Europe. 

Clearly a lot has happened since 2015’s stream of refugees burst upon Europe. Britain has left the EU, anti-immigrant parties in Austria and Italy have taken part in governing coalitions, and the anti-right consensus in Germany briefly broke down. Even the traditional centre-left parties of liberal, progressive Denmark have adopted strong and controversial rules (often adopted from the populist-right parties they prefer to deride) in favour of cultural integration and to dissuade immigration.  

The EU’s flaccid reaction this time around is indicative of the confusion and disunity among its member states and the declining legitimacy of its mighty and oft-feared central bureaucracy headquartered in Brussels. Even Germany’s tune is changing somewhat, with its Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, recently warning Turkey that “negotiating on the backs of the weakest” would not work. That probably surprised Erdogan, for it usually does work. 

Recall Merkel’s open-handed efforts four years ago to promote Willkommenskultur. When Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán erected fencing and established a military presence on his border in 2015, he was threatened with financial reprisals and bitterly scolded by a European Commission representative: “We have only just torn down walls in Europe; we should not be putting them up.” Hungary’s fencing and border controls remain in place and paved the way for Greece to do the same thing today, but without the condescension and at far lower financial and political risk.

Preston - Inset 8 (above)
Gate-keeping on the rise: From Brexit to Hungary’s border fence, the dream of a borderless Europe is rapidly disappearing.
Gate-keeping on the rise: From Brexit to Hungary’s border fence, the dream of a borderless Europe is rapidly disappearing.

The coronavirus pandemic should be considered an accelerant, rather than the underlying cause, for the return to hard borders. On March 17 the entire European Union closed its external borders. The whole concept of the Schengen Zone − an area within the EU that allows for passport-less travel and the essentially free movement of labour – can only work over the long term if the EU has effective external border controls. These were withering away under the Merkel-led drive to welcome the hordes of illegal and unscreened migrants and refugees. By the time the EU bureaucracy woke to the coronavirus threat, constituent countries within the EU, one-by-one and at their own initiative, were already closing their own borders to all but essential travel even from other member nations. This broke one of the four conditions crucial to an integrated Europe: the free movement of people.

Italy, the hardest hit in Europe by the coronavirus (also among the most embattled by the previous migrant tide) and second only to the United States in the number of confirmed cases and deaths, forced everyone else’s hand. On March 16, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Spain closed their borders to all foreigners. Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Slovenia enhanced existing border controls. These closures were denounced by European Commission President Ursula van der Leyen. But the next day, the EU followed suit. It had no choice. 

This instinct – and nationalism is indeed an instinct – is aggravating pre-existing cleavages within the EU. Italy has been devastated by the pandemic. As the disease took hold, the country became increasingly frustrated by the fact that medical supplies arrived quicker from Russia and China than from other EU countries. Italy pleaded desperately for help and pointed out that the EU Charter requires member nations to respond; instead Italy’s pleas were ignored. When they were desperately needed in Italy, France requisitioned all available face masks for domestic use, and Germany banned their export. Equally maddening, richer, less-affected countries in northern Europe, particularly Germany and the Netherlands, refused to ease financial and fiscal burdens on Italy, which has been requesting an EU-wide coronavirus rescue plan. The long-standing estrangement many Italians feel towards the EU is getting stronger by the day. 

Europe obviously isn’t a single country like Canada, although the Schengen zone, when operational, was intended to create a reasonable facsimile. I remember the odd sense of deviancy I got when riding my bicycle along a canal and passing a small signpost telling me I was leaving the Netherlands and entering Belgium. Soon a text message arrived: “Welcome to Belgium”. Crossing a national border was easier than getting on the Paris metro, which still had turnstiles (and I didn’t notice the separate turnstile for those with bicycles). Coronavirus has put a quick stop to these sorts of anecdotes. These days, Belgium’s border is now dotted with make-shift border controls constructed out of dumpsters and road barricades.

This road into Belgium was hastily closed in the wake of the coronavirus, effectively annulling the Schengen agreement.

Despite the pan-European push for open borders, a globalized economy and centralized control from Brussels, each member is still an independent country with responsibility for the safety and security of its own citizens. And answerable for its performance in those duties at election time. So it makes sense that when the risks posed by foreigners grow, national borders begin to matter more. When the casualties associated with those risks reach a threshold, traditional views about borders and the national interest sweep aside any lingering claims to political correctness and elite opinion. The borders were always there, even if everyone claimed they’d become invisible. 

The appearance of checkpoints and restrictions on non-essential travel between Canadian provinces and territories, though far less significant in global terms, should come as a far bigger shock to this country’s citizens. We are all Canadians, after all – a relationship that ought to be far stronger and more durable than what is shared between Danes and Hungarians or Italians and Germans. But a government’s first duty is always to protect the people it serves. Borders, by separating those inside from those outside, make that distinction practical and visible. And this begins to explain the roadblocks and checkpoints at provincial boundaries in Quebec, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI and the territories. In a time of crisis, you look after your own. 

Nunavut, unique for its lack of road connections with the rest of the country, has forbidden all interjurisdictional travel with the exception of returning Nunavummiut. Some native reserves have also closed their borders tight, denying access to all “outsiders,” and even preventing local non-native land owners from crossing band territory to reach their own property.  In B.C., a few municipal politicians have also called for the closing of the border with Alberta, to prevent Albertans with summer cabins or second homes across the provincial border from waiting out the virus in “their” jurisdiction. It doesn’t seem to matter that those property owners are taxpayers in B.C. as well as Alberta (in fact, Albertans pay higher property taxes than “locals”). In times of crisis, the movement of people across interprovincial borders can become as contentious as that of beer.

During a televised address to the province in early April, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced the province was implementing stronger border controls for those coming into Canada through Alberta airports. It no longer mattered that international airports, borders and customs are all areas of federal jurisdiction. What mattered was that the feds were failing at their job and Kenney saw his duty as protecting the people who elected him. “I believe it was a mistake for Canada to wait so long to close our borders, especially from countries with high levels of infection,” Kenney said. “While Alberta does not control who can fly here, we will deploy a much more rigorous approach than the federal government has in screening and quarantining international arrivals.”

The provinces step up: Following a weak federal response, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced new provincial rules for international air travelers landing in his province.

Kenney’s encroachment upon federal responsibility (some critics have used the term “usurp”) is not unique, although he expressed it more aggressively than most. Quebec is preparing its own business sector for a more protectionist international trade regime in the future as countries move to protect domestic industries. The province’s minister of economic development, Pierre Fitzgibbon, told the CBC “it will be very important for us to target what we want to protect in terms of supply chains.” Across the country, provincial leaders are asserting their autonomy and countering the possibility of related federal instruction. As well, the provinces have categorically and repeatedly rejected Ottawa’s suggestion that it invoke it’s Emergencies Act, something that raises the possibility of draconian federal powers.

These provincial declarations and assertions have come about not only as a result of Ottawa’s sluggishness, but also the perception that the federal government remains in the grip of politically correct dogma. Here the parallels to Europe are stronger, and the outcome can be blamed on Liberal ideology and habit. Recall how Ottawa obediently heeded advice from the World Health Organization (WHO) not to institute a travel ban in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, a move meant to placate China. Canada also refused to sign a G7 communique because the Americans insisted on using the term “Wuhan flu”. This despite a long history of naming diseases after their geographical origin. 

The Ebola virus, for example, comes from the Ebola River in the Congo. MERS is an acronym for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. And while the Spanish flu did not originate in Spain (more than likely it also came from China) its pandemic potential was first spotted on the Iberian peninsula. The U.S. also wanted to finger China for allowing the virus to spread, an entirely reasonable claim given ample evidence of the Communist regime’s malfeasance and misdirection. One recent study shows that had it been more open in informing the world, transmission rates could have been reduced by 95 percent.

The federal Liberals’ fealty towards the WHO is deeply problematic. At the Munich Security Conference on February 15, the WHO’s Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (he is not, however, a medical doctor) used a speech to spread obvious Chinese propaganda. “The greatest enemy we face is not the virus itself; it’s the stigma that turns us against each other,” he declared. “We must stop stigma and hate!” Currently Ethiopia’s minister of health, Ghebreyesus is a former Marxist rebel who was installed as the head of WHO by the Chinese, and his obedience has infected the entire organization. This is particularly evident in how Taiwan has been excluded from official WHO channels, despite its proximity to the epicentre and its success in holding the virus at bay. Taiwan, of course, is not a member of the WHO because China considers it a region of China and not an independent nation.

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (left) seemed more concerned about the opinions of Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) than stopping the virus’ spread.

Ottawa’s reluctance to take swift action in the early days of the pandemic for reasons of diplomatic fealty had real consequences. It wasn’t until March 16 that travel into the country was restricted to Canadian nationals (up until then, calling for that very measure was denounced as racist). By then, there had been 167,418 confirmed cases and 6,505 deaths worldwide. So the provinces swung into action. And even after the late crackdown, there were still exceptions. Bizarrely, illegal border-crossers at Roxham Road in Quebec were to be screened, but not turned back. Thankfully, that decision has since been reversed

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s blind trust in the UN’s institutions and in open borders, as well as his inherent affection for China’s oppressive regime, created a government mindset in which all the proper responses to this crisis – skepticism of information coming from China, the need to close borders to international travellers, independent thinking – were absent from official policy at a time when they were most needed. This failure to act revived the instinct to erect borders in such striking fashion using whatever means were available – in this case, the provincial level. 

Had the federal government been prepared to close Canada’s borders to Chinese travellers in the pandemic’s early days, the urge within Quebec to set up roadblocks on bridges to Ontario, or Kenney’s decision to personally appear at international airports making demands, might never have occurred. If Canadians had confidence that their external borders were being properly maintained, in other words, we might have been saved the deeply troubling spectacle of provinces creating new internal borders. But in the face of federal arrogance and over-confidence, the premiers felt they had no option but to seize the initiative and offer their electors the requisite sense of security. 

It is too early to tell where this new emphasis on borders will lead. In Canada, the constitutionality of border controls between provinces has yet to been tested. Given the exceptional and hopefully temporary circumstances, perhaps it won’t need to be. We also don’t know whether the closing of the illegal border crossings in Quebec will survive the end of the pandemic, although they should have been closed long ago. The bigger lesson, however, is that when times get tough, borders get thicker. Boundaries that have long seemed invisible can reassert themselves with surprising speed and vigour when a community feels threatened.

Preston - Inset 13 (above)
Open borders crumble: The irregular border crossing at Roxham Road in Quebec was finally closed by Ottawa amidst coronavirus fears (above), while borders across Europe have been slammed shut. (Below, a border checkpoint between Spain and France.)
Open borders crumble: The irregular border crossing at Roxham Road in Quebec was finally closed by Ottawa amidst coronavirus fears (above), while borders across Europe have been slammed shut. (Below, a border checkpoint between Spain and France.)

In Europe the trend towards thicker and more meaningful borders is unmistakeable and likely unstoppable. The continent’s fanciful experiment with a borderless world was proven a failure long before the coronavirus entered the scene. COVID-19 has accelerated this process of withdrawal and independence among European countries. 

The most plausible scenario may be one of increasing bifurcation. In countries that had already been reasserting the national interest, looking after their own people first and limiting or rebuffing unauthorized “migrants”, such policies and many more are likely to be cemented for the longer term. But where the globalist, pro-EU, open-borders elites are most firmly entrenched, they can be expected to cling tooth-and-claw to their old dogma and position, regardless of the damage to their nations. Merkel is the apotheosis of this mindset, closely followed by France’s Emmanuel Macron, though it’s prevalent throughout Europe. The latter group of countries, however, may find themselves a shrinking minority. History shows that when countries close their gates for whatever reason, they take a long time to reopen; often long after the original cause has ceased to be a threat.

“There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise,” writes Albert Camus in his newly-popular 1947 novel The Plague. Surviving both requires strong borders backed by strong nations. We forget this eternal truth at our peril.

Mathew Preston is a writer based in Alberta, with a Master of Strategic Studies degree from the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, and has worked in the defence industry in Ottawa.

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