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Updated: Nov 29, 2023


By Garry Douglas

As we head into fall, there is good news and concerning news at our northern border.

The good news is that Canadian crossings at Champlain since April have been at a level of around 70% of the numbers for the same period in 2019. This compares with a significantly lower rate of 50% at most other major border crossings including in western New York. License plate counts at Plattsburgh International Airport show that 76.7% of the cars are from Canada once again — with 74% from Quebec. We attribute this to the especially deep and strong connectivity between Quebec and our area which has always had us outperforming other border regions in the face of high exchange rates and other factors. And certainly, we can be pleased that our marketing efforts in Quebec and our hospitality efforts here at home have been effective.

The concern is that a strong bounce back to 70% still means we are well below 2019 levels, and it is fair to question whether this is just a natural transition period and we will get back to prior levels in 2023 or whether the totals will remain at a lower level going forward as they did across the frontier following 9/11 and imposition of the new Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) border crossing documentation requirements.

What raises the latter possibility is the continued mis-administration of our border by both federal governments. For years following 9/11, we talked of a “shared border” with almost all actions and changes developed and agreed to bi-nationally. In a jarring new reality that we are still living with, the pandemic in March 2020 triggered the new dynamic of two face-to-face borders, each governed and operated unilaterally. This new reality led us into continuous uncertainty and angst through 2021 and into 2022 as each government changed border crossing requirements in different ways at different times.

As of April, we reached a point of broad functionality for Americans and Canadians who are fully COVID vaccinated, leading to our reaching the 70% resumption level almost immediately. But where does this lead us with the missing 30% here, and the missing 50% in most border regions? A good part of this drop is attributable to the non-vaccinated, which will need to be dealt with and somehow normalized eventually. But it is much more than just this factor.

The current state of northern border policy-making leaves us with both governments making highly sensitive policy in a vacuum overseen by border bureaucracies. This misses the overarching fact that all that is special and powerful about the U.S.-Canadian relationship relies on people-to-people interaction, that the long shutdown greatly disrupted this enormously powerful and historical connection and that neither government can afford to leave decisions going forward to judgments focused on the trees without seeing the grander bi-national forest.

The unilateral imposition of the ArriveCAN app as a requirement for crossing into Canada is a key example. Like with WHTI ID requirements some years ago, it is being called a success by Canada because it is “simple” and because compliance at the border is so high. But that’s not the measure. The correct measure is acknowledgment of how many crossings are being lost because of the new requirement and the judgment of this reality against what needs to be a bi-national policy imperative — maximizing people-to-people exchange between the U.S. and Canada including a goal of getting back to 2019 levels.

So, the good news is that we have come a long way back at the northern border, while the concern is that we have farther to go, but are up against a bi-national policy-making failure when it comes to understanding the stakes and setting the correct over-arching goals. We will remain active and vocal.

Onward and upward! Garry Douglas is president of the North Country Chamber of Commerce.

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