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Families 'Split,' Montreal Tourism Down 90%: St. Mike's Professor Explains US-Canada 'Border Barometer' Report

Map of New York, Vermont and New Hampshire and the border with Quebec.
A new report examines the personal and economic fallout of the ongoing closure along the US-Canada border.

One of the enduring impacts of the coronavirus pandemic has been the border closure between the U.S. and Canada; non-essential traffic between the countries was banned in March of last year. Even as border restrictions ease, the economic damage to border communities has been done. A new report examines how severe and long-lasting that damage could be.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with professor Jeff Ayres, the chair of political science and international relations at Saint Michael's College and a member of the research team behind the 2021 Border Barometer report. Their conversation below has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: I was taken by something that you wrote in this report: that it’s the relationships, families and border communities that were arguably affected most by this border closure. Affected how, exactly? I mean, was the impact of the closure more psychological than economic? Or a mix of both? 

Jeff Ayres: I think it was a mix of both. There were eight of us across the country, from Alaska all the way across to Maine. I had the Vermont-Quebec-upper New York region. And we were all asked to think about the border communities.

Families were split — families that might have seen each other sometimes daily or much more frequently. That was a particularly dramatic negative aspect of the border closure.

How did you gather this information? I mean, it must have been pretty difficult during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This research was actually undertaken mostly in the winter, so [in] February, March and April. There's a little story in that; the project itself was sort of embargoed for months.

So a lot of my work was done [by] emailing people, doing some Zoom work, and also just doing a lot of content analysis, reading reports, reading a lot of the local news from some of the border communities and how people were being impacted.

More from VPR: Canada Reopens To Travelers, But With U.S. Still Closed, Border Town Roads, Businesses Remain Quiet

Why was it embargoed for a while?

That's a good question, I think. The research project was funded by the Canadian government. And we all had finished our work by mid-April, and we had a briefing in Ottawa with government officials at Global Affairs Canada. And our assumption was that after that briefing, the report would come out quite quickly.

That wasn't the case. I think it had a lot to do with politics. My sense is the Canadian government didn't want to be seen as aggressively upsetting, perhaps, the U.S. government. It's actually not completely clear, though.

I think the biggest issue is the timing more recently. Why was the report allowed to be released over the last couple of weeks, in late July, in fact? I think it clearly had to do with the timeframe with the Canadian government opening the border to vaccinated travelers from the United States.

Let's talk about some of the sectors that really took a big hit in Vermont or on the Canadian side. What are some of the things you found in this report about industries that really were particularly affected by this closure?

"Average spending from international tourists in the greater Montreal region was down over 90%."
Jeff Ayres, political science professor and 2021 Border Barometer coauthor

If we look across in Quebec first, I think that the tourism industry was hurt significantly in Quebec, with a number of different festivals. From the Montreal International Jazz Festival, the Canadian Grand Prix, [to] the Just For Laughs festival — these were all canceled in 2020. And average spending from international tourists in the greater Montreal region was down over 90%.

So, the tourism industry was significantly impacted in Quebec. Same thing in Vermont. I mean, I think the Vermont ski industry piece is something to really focus on. Jay Peak, of course — so close to the border, I think around four miles south of the border — usually sees half of it skiers visiting from Quebec [and] sells upwards of over 1,500 season passes. And because of the border closure, I think pass sales were down by over a third.

More from VPR: Reporter Debrief: The View From Canada Of Extended Border Restrictions

Beyond the hard economic numbers, and some of those very sad stories, your report does — and this is important — offer some recommendations to ease border crossings, to minimize impacts on border businesses in the future. What are some of those recommendations you can highlight? 

Once we fully reopen the border, once the United States opens the border two Canadians, [we’d] love to see passenger service [restored]. I know that that's being worked on, the train service restored to Montreal from Vermont.

Obviously, Autoroute 35 is being extended. I think many of us will be thrilled when that last little piece of the interstate is finished, so that the Canadian system, Autoroute 35, connects with U.S. Interstate 89.

But I think one of the interesting points to make is that individual cross-border traffic had actually not rebounded since 9/11. I think it's gonna be a long time again before we reach [those] numbers of Canadians and Americans crossing the border again.

We might see more cooperation between public health systems. There's been a long series of border initiatives since 9/11, from the Smart Border accord to the Safe Third Country agreement. And I wouldn't be surprised to see some sort of bi-national public health agreement that better anticipates a border closure or partial closure in the event of another type of pandemic.

I'm fascinated by this snap election that's been called by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. First, very briefly, explain for our American audiences who may not be familiar: What is a snap election? 

It's a moment when the prime minister in Canada [calls an election], approximately two years earlier than when the election had to take place — much earlier than it would be regularly scheduled. Fairly recently, Canada did institute for federal elections a four-year timeframe. But it's a significant power that the prime minister has, to go to the governor general and request that Parliament be dissolved and an election take place much earlier.

Why would Prime Minister Justin Trudeau want to do that? My assumption is that a leader who calls for a snap election, to have an election earlier than scheduled, believes he is going to win, or that his party will do very well. And this would be advantageous for him. Is that a fair assessment? 

Absolutely a fair assessment. [Trudeau’s Liberal party] has governed in a minority government, which is something else that's kind of confusing to Americans.

But yes, there was confidence that the Conservative Party wasn't faring well, and there was a sense that this was the time to say to Canadians, look, this is a snap election, it's a referendum on who can best lead the country coming out of this pandemic, with an expectation that the polls seem to suggest that the liberals would be able to get enough seats and form a majority [government]. Already, polls are tightening, and the liberals don't look like they're in majority territory; they look like they actually might end up with another minority government.

"Tensions exist sometimes between the Liberals and those who are in power, provincially, in Quebec. That's not occurring right now."
Jeff Ayres, political science professor and 2021 Border Barometer coauthor

The other really interesting point, though, has to do with Quebec Premier François Legault. There have been significant agreements recently between his government and the federal Liberals over, for example, funding of child care. And Trudeau [is] actually more or less supporting, for the most part, making the statement, provincially, that Quebec is a nation.

What oftentimes is the case [is] tensions exist sometimes between the Liberals and those who are in power, provincially, in Quebec. That's not occurring right now. Which suggests that the separatist Bloc Québécois, at the federal level, may not do as well, which may help Trudeau’s Liberals.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb

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A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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