UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal has reported the Trump White House dropped its “consideration of plans” to send U.S. military forces to the Canadian border. Citing a U.S. official, the paper said the decision had been made after Canada “strenuously objected to the idea.”
OTTAWA — As the White House contemplates moving troops towards the northern border, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says militarizing the boundary isn’t needed to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. And Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland warns any effort to do so would damage the two countries’ relationship.
Freeland told reporters Thursday that the Canadian government learned a few days ago that the United States was thinking of moving soldiers to guard against the possibility illegal crossers might carry COVID-19.
Discussions to push back against that move have occurred at every level of government from the State Department to the White House, she said, adding that she had not yet spoken to her counterparts, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or Vice-President Mike Pence. Trudeau had not spoken to President Donald Trump either, although a call may be arranged.
During his daily address to the nation from outside his home, where he remains in self-isolation, Trudeau acknowledged that officials were talking and said he strongly opposes having U.S. troops patrol the undefended border.
“Canada and the U.S. have the longest unmilitarized border in the world, and it is very much in both of our interests for it to remain that way,” he said.
“We have highlighted the fact that the Canada-US border is the longest unmilitarized border in the world is something that has benefited our two countries and our both economies tremendously. And we feel that it needs to remain that way,” he added.
Global News was the first to report Thursday morning that U.S. officials have proposed stationing troops 30 kilometres from the border between official points of entry. Sensors would be installed to track irregular border crossers.
Neither Trudeau nor Freeland spoke about the specifics of the plan. But a source confirmed those details to HuffPost Canada, saying the proposal for about a thousand troops to patrol near the border is being discussed in the context of the United States’ sending more soldiers to guard its southern border with Mexico.
When asked about Trudeau’s complaint during a press conference Thursday evening, Trump said: “I’ll find out about that.”
The United States has “very strong deployments on the southern border,” he said. “In Canada...we do have troops along the border,” the president claimed. “We have a lot of things coming in from Canada, we have trade, some illegal trade we don’t like.”
Trump seemed to suggest that soldiers along the Canadian border might be there as “equal justice” or to guard against the dumping of illegal steel. “We’ve taken in billions and billions of dollars in tariffs on steel and much of it comes in from China but they can come through the Canadian border too, so we’re always watching for that.”
Earlier in the day, Freeland said countries everywhere — including Canada — are making decisions quickly, but it was her understanding that a final decision had not been made.
“At the end of the day, every country takes its own decisions,” she said during an Ottawa press conference. Canada is strongly making the case to U.S. officials that the relationship between the two countries is special and cooperative, she said.
“We are very directly and very forcefully expressing the view … that this is an entirely unnecessary step, which we would view as damaging to our relationship.”
Canada-U.S. border temporarily closed
Last week, Canada and the United States introduced new rules to temporarily close the border to all non-essential travel. Exemptions have been granted to trucking, for example, to preserve supply chains.
When pressed whether Canada should enact tougher screening measures on those truckers, the prime minister said the federal government would “adjust as things unfold, as necessary.”
“We will be continuing to follow the best advice of the scientific community on doing what is necessary to keep Canadians safe as a priority,” he said.
The border’s closing to cross-border shoppers and travellers came into effect March 21 and is expected to last at least 30 days.
Both nations have also agreed to send back asylum seekers coming from one country to the other, either at unofficial crossings or at official points of entry.
The United States is on track to surpass China in the number of COVID-19 cases. The World Health Organization said this week that the “very large acceleration” of U.S. cases could potentially make it the new centre of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were already more than 68,440 cases of the highly contagious respiratory virus in the U.S. Thursday morning and 994 deaths. The case count is believed to be wildly underestimated, as many Americans are unable to get tested.
On Thursday, the prime minister also repeated earlier announcements by his ministers. He noted that some travellers returning to Canada have not respected requests to self-isolate for 14 days and said they have placed other people’s health in jeopardy.
“This kind of conduct is not just disappointing; it is dangerous,” he said.
As of Wednesday, it is now law for those returning to Canada from abroad to self-isolate for two weeks. Travellers must go directly to their home without making any stops. If anyone has symptoms of COVID-19, officials said they will be prevented from taking public transit and the government will ensure transportation to their final destination. Those arriving will be required to hand over their contact information and addresses to border guards, and law enforcement officials may show up at their homes to ensure that people are in their homes.
Failure to abide by the new rules could result in fines of up to $750,000 or six months in jail. If someone causes serious bodily harm or the death of someone by venturing outside, fines could amount to $1 million or imprisonment of up to three years.
“We are implementing the Quarantine Act to keep Canadians safe,” he said.
When questioned about why these measures were not taken sooner, and whether the delay may have contributed to the spread of the virus in Canada, the prime minister did not answer.
Officials double down on physical distancing
Public health officers are now reporting that most of the new COVID-19 cases being confirmed are the result of community spread rather than contagion from travel abroad.
This week, the federal government announced $107 billion in measures to help workers and businesses struggling to make ends meet owing to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The legislation, which became law Wednesday, allows employees and employers who have no income because of the outbreak to claim $2,000 a month in direct assistance. The online portal for applications is expected to be up and running in early April, and Trudeau said payments should be flowing two weeks later.
The prime minister also suggested more help is on its way. Finance Minister Bill Morneau has had discussions with the banks about credit card interest rates, Trudeau said.
“We recognize that they are a significant challenge for many Canadians at this point. That is why we are encouraging them to take action to alleviate the burden for Canadians.”
While the banks may not budge on the interest rates, the prime minister said the government was also working to make “credit more available and less expensive for Canadians” to help them make it through next few months.
As of Thursday morning, there were more than 3,409 cases of COVID-19 and 35 reported deaths across Canada.
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