WASHINGTON — Canada will be watching the United States closely for teachable moments in the coming weeks, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday as regional leaders in both countries began taking tentative steps along the road to recovery in an unfamiliar new post-pandemic era.
The best way forward will be informed by what works — and also what doesn’t — as the U.S. and the rest of the world emerges from the crisis, Trudeau said during his daily briefing outside the front door of his Rideau Cottage residence.
But with the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic beginning to recede, and states and provinces talking about easing restrictions and reopening businesses, the limits on travel between Canada and the U.S. will remain in place for as long as is necessary, he added.
“We have strong border measures in place to ensure that we’re doing what we need to do to protect Canada,” Trudeau said.
“As provinces look at their own situation and how we can move forward on beginning to reopen our economy, I know their decisions and our decisions will be informed by what is working, and what is perhaps not working as well, elsewhere the world.”
In both countries, the process of restarting the economic engine is taking place on a state-by-state and province-by-province basis. Prince Edward Island is eyeing a gradual process beginning next week, while Saskatchewan’s new five-phase plan begins May 4 with certain medical services resuming. Golf courses and selected retail shops could open their doors the following week.
But the U.S., where a partisan spasm of frustration and desperation has sent residents and supporters of President Donald Trump into the streets to demand their freedom back, some states are already moving at a speed others can only dream about.
Georgia is planning to start throwing open its doors on Friday, a timeline that even the otherwise gung-ho Trump conceded Wednesday may be premature, given the state has not reached the Phase 1 criteria of the multi-stage White House framework for lifting restrictions.
Trump, who has for weeks made it clear he wants the country back to work sooner rather than later, insisted the decision is Gov. Brian Kemp’s to make.
But the patchwork approach in both countries won’t impact the mutual restrictions on cross-border traffic, at least not yet, said Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. and a central player in negotiating the bilateral ban on non-essential travel.
Because the flow of trade and commerce was never stopped, the current agreement is already well-equipped to deal with a staggered, staged approach to restarting state and provincial economies, Hillman said in an interview Thursday.
“The commerce aspect of our border — the supply chain, the movement of goods, the essential workers — that’s all happening very, very smoothly,” she said.
“That responds to, in my view, the view on both sides of the border that we should be trying to be sure that our economies, when the time’s right, starts to ramp up again. The border agreement as it stands now is in support of that.”
Contrary to the tone of the narrative that emerged at the height of the crisis, the border negotiations have been co-operative and productive throughout, said Richard Mills, the acting U.S. ambassador to Canada.
Mills rejected the idea that the two countries had been at odds, particularly over Canadian imports of U.S.-made personal protective equipment, and denied media reports that U.S. authorities at the border had intercepted an Ontario-bound shipment of all-important medical face masks.
And like Hillman, he cited the specific Canadian exemption that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has added to its rules governing the export of such equipment to demonstrate that relations between the two countries are healthy.
“This exemption was considered necessary in recognition of the importance of our close relationship to Canada, the role Canada plays in our national defence as well as the fact we have such integrated economies and supply chains,” Mills said.
“The U.S. government … has always recognized the importance of collective international supply chains to our collective security. We are committed still to work with Canada … to ensure that our supply chains remain intact.”
As to how the agreement is likely to evolve as restrictions on personal mobility continue to lift, it’s impossible to say, Hillman said.
“It’s not possible at this stage to speculate as to would it be staged, how it would go down,” she said. ”The science will dictate that and we’re just not there yet.”
Despite growing evidence that infection rates in the U.S. are slowing, public health officials have been urging a go-slow approach to ensure COVID-19 doesn’t make a comeback and undo all the progress made so far. That, Trudeau said, is precisely Canada’s plan, working from a uniform set of guidelines and principles to help inform provincial decision-making.
“Everyone wants to know when this is going to be over, when we’re going to be able to get back to normal life,” he said.
“What we’re doing at the federal level is pulling together and attempting to co-ordinate all different provinces, so that we are working from a similar set of guidelines and principles to ensure that Canadians right across the country are being kept safe as we look to those next steps.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 23, 2020.
— With files from Mike Blanchfield in Ottawa
— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle
James McCarten, The Canadian Press