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The Founding College of the University of Toronto
Canada Border and COVID-19

Canada's Borders and COVID-19

By Emily Gilbert
Professor, Department of Geography & Planning
Director, Canadian Studies, University College

On Monday, March 16, 2020, Canada announced that it was closing its borders to all foreigners, except Americans. On March 21, 2020, however, Canada and the United States made the unprecedented announcement that their shared border would be closed, except to essential travel. That closure has now been extended until at least June 21, 2020. An Angus Reid poll has suggested that many Canadians would like to see the border remain closed into the fall, and even into 2021.

The unprecedented closing of Canada’s borders—to the US and to much of the world—might seem to be a no-brainer. Yet in my writing and teaching on borders, I always push for critically examining the ways that borders are mobilized, particularly given that they are used to monitor, police, and exclude.

National borders and immigration policies have always been wielded to manage health and disease. Canada’s first Immigration Act of 1869 was mostly about ensuring the health of passengers, rather than explicitly restricting mobility. Quarantine officers were directed to embark on any arriving ship to determine if there were any passengers who were “Lunatic, Idiotic, Deaf and Dumb, Blind or Infirm,” and if so, to ensure that they had financial means for their own support. Into the early 20th century, new immigration acts were more restrictive and disease was one category of inadmissibility.

With the first Immigration Act, the federal government also assumed responsibility for two existing quarantine stations. The first of these was on Melville Island, really a peninsula in the Halifax municipality. The island had been used to detain American prisoners of war in the War of 1812. After the war, former Black slaves from the US—the so-called Chesapeake Blacks—were quarantined at the prison hospital for smallpox and typhus as they arrived in Canada. The site was then regularly used for quarantine. When over 1,200 Irish immigrants arrived in Halifax in 1847, fleeing the potato famine, they were isolated on Melville Island en masse.

Grosse Île, in the St. Lawrence estuary, began as a quarantine station in 1832, when fears of cholera were rife. The island is located about 50 kilometres downstream of Quebec City, which was then the main port of entry to Canada. At mid-century, Irish immigrants also passed through: in one year (1847) over 90,000 Irish arrived there, at the height of a typhus epidemic. Nearly 5,500 people were buried on the island that year. Quarantine facilities were significantly expanded in the 1880s, applying new medical knowledge about the spread of disease, and better separating the sick from the healthy. Boats, people, and their belongings were all disinfected. One building was installed with 44 shower units that sprayed hot water and mercury bichloride (now known to be very toxic to humans). Hotels followed in the early 20th century, with separate facilities for first-, second-, and third-class passengers, as wealth was determined to be an indicator of risk. By the time the quarantine facilities closed in 1937, over 4 million immigrants had passed through Grosse Île. An Irish Memorial was erected in 1997, which bears the names of over 8,000 people, of various nationalities, who were buried on the island between 1832 and 1937.

Just after British Columbia joined Confederation, William Head Quarantine Station was opened on Victoria Island. Migration was increasing to the region, prompted by the gold rush, but also of Chinese labourers brought in to build the railroad. During World War I, over 80,000 labourers from China who were recruited to do the war’s grunt work were held in quarantine for 14 days at William Head, before embarking by train across Canada on their way to Europe. A “Coolie Camp” was erected, guarded by the garrison artillery. After the war, on their way back to China, they again passed through the William Head, which was now heavily fortified with barbed wire and armed guards, and a marine gunship patrol, all in an attempt to dissuade any Chinese from settling in Canada. In 1958 the quarantine facilities were closed, and the 42 buildings were turned into a minimum security federal penitentiary.  

This history shows how foreign bodies, invariably racialized, have been characterized as diseased, which is then used to rationalize their exclusion. The quarantine sites described above used to be common around the world, but are no longer. Today, in response to COVID-19, the global response has been to shut down borders altogether. Currently, about 90% of the world’s population lives in countries where there is full or partial border closure to non-citizens and non-residents, and sometimes to them, too.

Closing Canada’s border to the US has been rationalized in terms of the much larger number of COVID-19 cases and deaths there. As I write, the US has the largest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the world, and the largest number of confirmed deaths, just over 100,000. In Canada, by contrast, the number of confirmed deaths has just passed 6,500.

This is not to suggest that Canada should be either self-congratulatory or complacent, especially as new cases are on the rise in both Quebec and Ontario, and both provinces have fallen short in their testing programs. Yet, the numbers also speak to how jurisdiction can and does make a difference, with respect to government policies and leadership, how governments work together—or not—across multiple scales of jurisdiction, the coordination and collaboration with public health officials, and public behaviour.

Indeed, these kind of differences don’t only exist at the national scale, and have prompted internal borders to be erected within Canada by some provinces and territories. Newfoundland has even passed legislation (Bill 38) that gives its police the power to detain and remove those in contravention of its public safety measures. Some Indigenous communities—already beset by under-resourced health care, lack of access to clean drinking water, and sub-standard housing—have also restricted access to their territories because they are at greater risk, while having fewer protections.

Given that jurisdictional differences clearly matter, why not close Canada’s national borders as tightly as possible as long as the pandemic still rages? What is the problem? I want to suggest three issues that warrant our close attention.

First, border closings are generally not considered to be effective ways to prevent the spread of viruses. In principle, the World Health Organization does not advocate border closure as a health strategy. Their International Health Regulations, to which 196 countries are signatory, prohibit restrictions on trade or travel, unless based on scientific principles, risk to human health, or a WHO directive. Border closings can be dangerous as people will try and circumvent the rules regardless, and clandestine crossings make tracking the virus—which is one of the most effective forms of management—much more difficult, especially if access to health care is impeded. The WHO also cautions that border closures might direct resources away from other, more effective measures. All of these fears were realized around the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa.

Moreover, border closings can be driven by politics and not health priorities. Canada and the US both imposed restrictions on China fairly quickly, but not on other countries that are traditionally considered allies. In the US, new epidemiological testing indicates that the sweep of COVID-19 cases in the US are actually strains from Europe—travellers there went untested, even when the outbreak was already unfolding. In Canada’s provinces that have been hardest hit by COVID-19, more cases can be traced to the US than to travellers from other countries. If national borders are to be used to manage the coronavirus, this should be based on health data, not on geopolitical interests.

Second, closing the border can fuel anti-immigration and xenophobia. As University College’s incoming Barker Fairley Distinguished Visitor, Carrianne Leung, has detailed, anti-Asian racism is rife during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is nothing new here, as the history of border quarantine outlined above shows how ‘foreign’ bodies are targeted as disease carriers. At the turn of the 19th century, when anti-Asian sentiments were also heightened, fears of disease were used to argue against immigration. In 1906, for example, the Trades and Labour Congress of Victoria warned against Indian migrants, arguing they carried diseases such as bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, and hookworm. When the Komagatu Maru arrived off the shores of Canada in 1914, the fear of disease was one reason used to deny landing to the South Asian passengers. Similarly, when boats of asylum seekers from Fujian province arrived off the shores of Vancouver in 1999, and then again when ships of Sri Lankan asylum seekers arrived in 2010 and 2011, disease was again invoked to try to prohibit their landing.

Moreover, in the current pandemic, Canada is abrogating its commitment to asylum seekers. In cooperation with the US, Canada has agreed to turn back all undocumented arrivals at the land border. Effectively, these asylum seekers are placed into the hands of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who will most likely detain and/or deport them, as the Trump administration is using the pandemic to expedite its anti-immigration policies, including building its wall with Mexico, and sending more military to its borders. This not only diverts resources, but also increases human vulnerability. Since the election of President Trump, tens of thousands of asylum seekers have been crossing into Canada annually, seeking a safe haven. Now that is no longer possible. Where have all these vulnerable people gone? And are they safe?

Third, closing national borders promotes nationalist responses to our global problem, rather than treating coronavirus as a collective problem to solve. The warmongering rhetoric of COVID-19 as an enemy to fight, or a battle to be won, reinforces this. It encourages attacks on international organizations such as the WHO, such as those made by Trump, that undermine longstanding international cooperation. Between 1851 and 1951, a series of International Sanitary Conferences were held to address infectious diseases such as cholera, plague, and yellow fever. These conferences were precursors to the WHO, and international health governance. There is no need to romanticize these efforts, which were limited in scope and inclusion, and prioritized trade and national interests. But they did create opportunities for sharing science and prophylactic approaches, and promoted support for more robust forms of public health, all of which should receive continued support today.

Border closings may also exacerbate rising economic nationalism. While the COVID-19 crisis has exposed many of the problems of global capitalism, the solution is not necessarily to re-centre the nation, e.g., with Buy American or Buy Canadian programs. President Trump’s attempt to prevent 3M medical face masks (N95s) from being shipped to Canada is yet another example of how economic nationalism could have negative health effects. Prioritizing health and welfare over corporate profit, as well as workers rights and incomes, is our challenge, which does not require economic nationalism, but can be addressed at multiple scales: local, national, and global.

Clearly, the political and social ramifications of border closures need to be considered alongside health concerns. This is not to suggest that temporary borders closures are not warranted right now, only that we shouldn’t do so uncritically. This is especially the case because the unprecedented can quickly become the new normal. Crisis measures—like increased security and surveillance—are nearly impossible to strip back.

The promise of immunity passports, which would facilitate travel for those who are virus-free, is one example of how bordering practices could be rolled out in a more widespread way, and which could be used in discriminatory ways. Already, ID cards have been issued to seasonal migrant workers by the health unit of Haldimand and Norfolk region in Ontario. The cards confirm that their holders have completed the two-week isolation that is required of all travelers from outside the country. But why are these workers expected to carry special cards? Who would ask to see the card? For what purposes? There are concerns that the racialized bodies of these workers, who are predominantly from Mexico and the Caribbean, are being singled out, just as police carding disproportionately targets Black, Brown, and Indigenous people.

While the pandemic still rages, keeping Canada’s borders closed can be an effective tool of disease management alongside other isolation and physical distancing measures. We must be careful, however, to examine who these measures impact and how, and to be vigilant against the new forms of policing and surveillance that are being introduced.

This article is the second in a series on COVID-19 by Canadian Studies researchers at University College.