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Former Quebec premier says border reopening hinges on vaccinations

PLATTSBURGH — Former Premier of Quebec Jean Charest believes the northern border will remain closed to nonessential travel until such a time when vaccinations are up and the number of Canadians and Americans affected by COVID-19 are down.

“The key is vaccination,” Charest said repeatedly during a Wednesday morning webinar with about 350 listeners. It focused on the border’s reopening and was co-hosted by the North Country Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of Quebec Chambers of Commerce.

While waiting for the ideal conditions, the former premier stressed the importance of pushing bi-national leaders to pen a reopening plan.

“I’m going to be honest with you. In the discussions we’ve had, we did not feel that there was a sense of urgency, either on the American or on the Canadian side, to address this issue,” he said. “We did not get that sense, that feeling that this was something that they have to deal with right now.

“Our challenge in the short term is to move them to that level where they are actually committed to delivering a plan.”

Report in works

Charest sits on the bi-national Wilson Task Force on Public Health and the U.S.-Canadian Border, which was formed late last year by the Wilson Center, a nationally recognized and non-partisan policy forum, to develop recommendations for the border’s eventual reopening to nonessential travel.

Joining him on the task force is former Washington state Gov. Christine Gregoire, former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada Anne McLellan and former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

The group was expected to release recommendations in March, but has yet to do so.

Charest said Wednesday, “Essentially, what I can report is what you already know: Both governments are very determined to, first of all, fight COVID in our respective jurisdictions.”

Though he did not provide a timeline, the former premier mentioned the report’s impending release.

Terms

In his own opinion, and not speaking on behalf of the task force, Charest said the border reopening hinged on greater vaccination rates in both countries, though not herd immunity level.

He said Canada, once lacking in its vaccination figures, had somewhat caught up, reaching a 30% vaccination rate as of late, while the U.S. was at about 43%.

And, once reopened, Charest anticipated other terms for border crossing, like proof of vaccination and a recent negative test.

Noting Mexico’s low vaccination rate of about 10%, Charest said one fear of the Canadian government was that the U.S. would tie its northern border policies to its southern border ones.

“We care about Mexico, and we want that issue to be well addressed,” he said. “We just want to have an assurance that on the American side, there will be an ability to be asymmetric and recognize that these are two different situations and not link them in a way that would block progress on one side.”

“Need to start”

Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, was a speaker at Wednesday’s webinar, as well. After encountering some technical difficulties, she sent her remarks via video following the event.

Stefanik noted challenges faced by businesses and families in cross-border communities and the uncertainty caused by the monthly border closure extensions, which have lasted more than a year.

In her role as co-chair of the Congressional Northern Border Caucus, the congresswoman said she had submitted recommendations for immediate border crossing easements and a gradual reopening plan to President Joe Biden.

“With a growing share of residents of both nations vaccinated, testing capacities greatly improved and new cases on the decline in many regions, leaving cross-border travel restricted in the same manner as during the height of the pandemic does not make sense,” she said. “Unduly extending this hardship on border communities and businesses.

“We need to start laying the ground work for a full safe reopening with a comprehensive plan and immediate actions to gradually restore travel and that nonessential border crossing.”

Northern “wall”

North Country Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Garry Douglas told listeners, “Make no mistake, a wall has been placed between us on the border.

“In the U.S. we have heard much over the last four years of a physical wall at the Mexican border, but a wall that is even more sturdier and more exclusive in terms of its impact has actually now been placed between the U.S. and Canada,” he said. “Who would have ever thought that that would happen?

“One of the things that I know I hope, I think we all hope, will come out of this conversation … is a heightened sense of urgency.”

Again referencing the lack of urgency that he has noticed, Charest remembered back to the fallout of Sept. 11, 2001.

“Around 9/11, the border was closed for three days, and that created a very, very important — not an uproar, but a chill in regard to policymakers, who felt it was very urgent to reopen the border and that we had to do something about this,” he said.

“Garry mentioned that there isn’t that sense of urgency this time, and I think it’s true.”

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