Short-term panic then segued into more lasting reforms that continue to this day. Permanently stricter standards of border security were imposed on both sides, including tougher vehicle screenings, mandatory passport checks and the erection of physical, manned crossing gates at places where there may have previously been little more than a parking cone to signify the boundary between the two nations.
It is impossible to know the precise impact such changes had on overall North American prosperity and economic integration, since both have steadily continued despite it all, but a quick glance at the post-9/11 trade chart shows a decidedly wobbly incline that was once relatively smooth.
The 9/11 attacks heralded a fundamental mind-set change in the management of the border, spawned by a mutual belief among both Canadians and Americans that the threat of terrorism justified a new era of anxious national security and defensive posturing. What’s happening today, however, is something decidedly different: a more targeted response to a public health crisis almost everyone understands to be short term — even if just how short term remains distressingly unknown.
No one, after all, should think that the coronavirus pandemic exposes some deep structural deficiency in U.S.-Canada relations. A partial border shutdown much like Trudeau’s earlier shutdown of all non-American foreign travel into Canada — is being implemented in response to what is fundamentally a problem of human movement.
The broad international implementation of so-called flattening-the-curve strategies accordingly requires governments to do everything in their power to prevent excessive movement and intermingling of humans. Indeed, at Trudeau’s Wednesday news conference, a reporter asked if he would consider imposing a ban on travel within Canada, to which Trudeau replied, “We are not taking any options off the table.”
To paraphrase the famous quote from Mayor Fiorello La Guardia about garbage collection, there should be no Liberal or Conservative way for Canada’s government to deal with a viral pandemic. Closing borders and banning foreigners is deeply contrary to Trudeau’s brand as a champion of progressive globalism, and he deserves credit for subordinating his ideological considerations to rational crisis management — even if the piecemeal ways such policies have been rolled out will continue to invite criticism. One hopes other Canadians will be equally skilled at intellectual compartmentalizing.
The challenge for any public policy relating to management of the U.S.-Canada border has always been balancing Canada’s self-interest in keeping the border as open as possible against the sort of anti-American populist sentiments so common in Canadian culture and politics. A bilateral 2015 proposal to allow U.S. agents to engage in pre-screening of Canadian travelers to the United States while they are still on Canadian soil — something already widely done in Canadian airports and certainly looking deeply sensible now — yielded a sizable anti-American backlash from irate Canadians complaining about “one more impingement of our sovereignty.” The relevant legislation was passed by the United States in 2016 but did not get Canadian approval until the final days of 2017. Canadian coverage of the new protocols, which took effect in 2019, continues to be deeply sensationalized.
It is inevitable that some Canadians will view any shutdown of the U.S.-Canada border as vindicating their larger views of the United States as somewhere scary and dangerous, just as some have misread Trudeau’s other travel bans as a victory for xenophobia or immigration restrictionism. Isolationists in the United States, for their part, may be equally eager to read it as proof that their dream of a “fortress America” is finally coming true. Even amid crisis, ingrained ideological tendencies die hard.
But for those who value the importance of an integrated North America and are capable of taking the long view of history, there’s plenty of reason for confidence that this is nothing more than a temporary setback dictated by a decidedly unideological assessment of practical necessity.
This will not be another 9/11 for the border — though ensuring that outcome will require some vigilance along the way.