Gone are the days when Canadians and Americans could freely drive across their shared border for a quick shopping trip or to visit family and friends.
Now, the Canada-U.S. land border that was once wide open is closed to non-essential travel, affecting the lives of many people on both sides.
Here’s the latest on what you need to know about Canada-U.S. border rules and why our neighbours to the south may not be visiting for a while.
When will the Canada-U.S. border reopen?
It came as no surprise to many people when the federal government announced last month that the Canada-U.S. land border — which closed on March 21 to non-essential traffic — would remain shut until at least Aug. 21.
Canadians can still fly to the U.S., but that rule isn’t reciprocal: Canada prohibits U.S. visitors from entering via all modes of transport.
Canada and the U.S. review their border closure agreement every 30 days. Several experts in different fields have told CBC News that they predict the border won’t reopen until sometime next year.
The main reason: COVID-19 cases are still surging in several U.S. states.
“It doesn’t seem to be getting any better in the U.S.,” said U.S. Immigration lawyer Len Saunders, whose office sits close to the Canadian border in Blaine, Wash. He believes the border could stay closed for another six months.
“There’s really no reason why the Canadian government, at this point, would want to open it up and subject Canadians to an increased rate of COVID infections.”
Many Canadians have also made it clear that they want the border to stay shut for now.
When Leger Marketing asked 1,500 Canadians last month if they thought the Canada-U.S. border should reopen at the end of July, 86 per cent of respondents said they were opposed to the idea.
In early July, 29 members of the U.S. Congress sent a joint letter to U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Canadian government. In it, they asked that both countries start working on a phased reopening of the border.
One member of Congress posted the letter on Twitter and was bombarded with angry comments from Canadians demanding the border stay shut. Some even suggested that Canada build a wall.
Given public opinion, economist Moshe Lander said it would be “political suicide” for Canadian politicians to contemplate reopening the border right now.
“As long as Canadians don’t feel safe, then why force open that border when there’s no strong political logic to doing it?” said Lander, a professor at Concordia University in Montreal.
He predicts a possible border reopening in middle to late 2021 — if there’s enough confidence at that point that the virus is under control.
What about separated families?
To qualify as common-law, couples must have lived together for at least one year and prove it with documentation showing a shared address.
Some separated couples who don’t meet the criteria have opted to tie the knot.
Lawyer Saunders said that at least two dozen of his clients — who are in cross-border relationships — have expedited their marriage plans so that they can reunite in Canada now.
Canadians can fly to the U.S. to get married, or both partners can travel to the Peace Arch border crossing between B.C. and Washington state.
That border crossing includes a neutral zone — a shared Canada-U.S. park. The Canadian section of the park is closed. However, Canadians can still enter the U.S. section of the park for the day to visit with their American partner — or even get married.
Saunders said that he has advised many inquiring cross-border couples that they can marry in the park, as long as they obtain a Washington state marriage licence and are wed by a Washington officiant.
“It’s totally legal to get married on the American side,” Saunders said. “A lot of people are taking advantage of that.”
The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) told CBC News that when Canadians return from the U.S. park, they must self-quarantine for 14 days. B.C. RCMP said only people entering Canada at official border crossings — which excludes the park — are being tracked for quarantine compliance.
Crackdown on Americans driving to Alaska
Americans are allowed to drive through Canada to Alaska for essential reasons, such as for work or to return home. However, they’re not to make unnecessary stops along the way.
In June, Alberta RCMP issued 10 fines of $1,200 to U.S. residents headed to Alaska who stopped in Banff National Park to see the sights.
On July 10, B.C. RCMP fined an American boat operator $1,000 for entering Canadian waters for a vacation.
“It was clear the persons on this vessel had misstated their intention to travel to Alaska and had entered Canada for the purposes of tourism,” said the RCMP in a statement.
To try to curb the problem, the CBSA introduced stricter rules on Friday for Americans driving to Alaska.
They must enter Canada through one of five designated border crossings and hang a CBSA-issued tag from their car’s rear view mirror that lays out the purpose and rules of their trip.
Before exiting Canada for Alaska, drivers must check in once again with the CBSA.
Even before the new rules took effect, it appears that Americans were getting the message. Alberta RCMP said no fines were issued to wayward U.S. drivers in July.
“It’s heartening,” said Alberta RCMP spokesperson Fraser Logan. “It’s just important that … you’re following the rules.”