OTTAWA — The Trudeau government, provincial premiers and Canadian business leaders awoke March 12 to address the fallout for Canada of President Donald Trump’s decision to slam America’s door shut to most foreign nationals who were recently in Europe.
Trump’s drastic step came in response to an accelerating global pandemic that could pose a serious threat to commerce and travel between Canada and its largest trading partner.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland meet with provincial premiers — by phone — to discuss Canada’s response, including ensuring the safety of the Canada-U.S. border, while keeping people and products flowing across it.
Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said Canadians had to be “calm” and “level-headed” after testifying at a scheduled hearing of the House of Commons immigration committee.
“Our government has presented a plan, that is informed by the evidence, that is informed by experts and one that should give confidence to Canadians that Canadians from coast to coast to coast that our immigration, our health-care system our public-safety apparatus are all working in conjunction to protect them, to protect their health, their safety and their security,” he said.
Mendicino gave no indication the government had any advance notice of Trump’s decision.
“I won’t comment on the policies of other countries, but I will say that anybody who wishes to travel to Canada will be subject to the very rigorous procedures and protocols which are in place.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he believed Trudeau and Freeland were “fully engaged” with the crisis and were in constant contact with the premiers. Most of the country’s premiers were in Ottawa for a first ministers’ meeting, where Ford said Canada’s response to Trump’s move — including whether to close the Canadian border — would be up for discussion.
The outbreak forced Trudeau to turn that into a phone meeting to limit the spread of the virus. Trudeau’s office said he was self-isolating with his wife, Sophie, as she awaited the results of a COVID-19 test after she exhibited mild flu-like symptoms after returning from a speaking engagement in Britain.
Ford stressed the need to keep goods and people flowing between Canada and its largest trading partner.
“President Trump has to make that decision for his country, and we’ll be discussing this with the deputy prime minister, with our premiers and with the prime minister on Friday,” Ford said.
“We have to be vigilant, keep an eye on our borders, make sure that we’re doing proper screening,” he added. “We have to look at this as North America, not just Canada, it’s absolutely critical we keep the borders open and have the trade flowing back and forth.”
Goldy Hyder, the president of the Business Council of Canada, said the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been “spot on” so far, and that it has to resist the urge to overreact to Trump’s unexpected decision.
“I still can’t make sense of some of the announcement,” Hyder said in an interview.
“We can’t deny geography. We have to look at protecting that flow of services and that flow of people in what is effectively 75% of our economy.”
Trump, in a rare televised Oval Office address, sounded ill at ease Wednesday as he sought to assure Americans that his White House was taking decisive steps to slow the march of the novel coronavirus.
“To keep new cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days,” Trump declared into the camera, his fingers latticed before him on the Resolute Desk.
“There will be exemptions for Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings, and these prohibitions will not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo, but various other things as we get approval. Anything coming from Europe to the United States is what we are discussing. These restrictions will also not apply to the United Kingdom.”
The president later tweeted, “The restriction stops people, not goods.”
It wasn’t immediately clear how much advance notice the Prime Minister’s Office received of the president’s plans, or precisely what steps Canada would be taking to deal with the potential fallout.
“We won’t comment on other countries’ approaches,” said spokesman Cameron Ahmad. “We will continue to base our decisions in Canada on science and the best advice from our Public Health Agency.”
A news release from the White House clarified the president’s proclamation, which was made under the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act.
It only applies to the movement of human beings, not goods or cargo, and to foreign nationals who in the last two weeks visited one of 26 countries in Europe that allow free and open travel between their borders, a bloc known as the Schengen Area. American citizens and permanent residents are exempt, and will be directed to “a limited number” of airports where they can be screened, the release said.
The ban is to take effect at midnight March 13.
Trump, whose efforts to impose travel bans have been met with court challenges in the past, imposed a similar ban in January on recent foreign visitors to China, a restriction he has frequently insisted has helped to keep the outbreak at bay in the United States. A similar ban on foreign nationals who had travelled to Iran came the following month.
The president has been under fire for what critics have called a tepid and disorganized response to the crisis from a White House that didn’t appear to be taking the threat seriously.
But with the outbreak escalating, stock markets in freefall and the risk to the U.S. economy growing by the day, Trump, gearing up for a re-election effort later this year, appears to be taking notice.
In addition to the travel ban, he also announced a $50-billion, low-interest plan to improve liquidity in capital markets for small businesses, and to defer tax bills for people and businesses affected by the outbreak. And he’s pushing Congress to green-light his proposal to cut payroll taxes to help keep the country’s economic gears turning.
After China, South Korea and Iran, Europe is the new source of alarm surrounding what the World Health Organization now considers a pandemic. Italy, where Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has effectively locked down his country and shuttered restaurants, retailers, cafes and bars, is the centre.
Public gatherings in Italy are prohibited and the country’s 60 million residents have been asked to limit their travel to work or emergencies to help curb the spread of a virus that has sickened more than 12,000 people there and killed 827.
— With files from James McCarten in Washington and Joan Bryden and Stephanie Levitz in OttawaNews from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc. 2020