'Canada will lose every time:' COVID-19 pandemic threatens Canada-U.S. relations

While Canada and the U.S. have historically had strong ties in times of crisis, the current pandemic seems to be setting a different tone.

It was recently reported that a shipment of Quebec-bound masks ended up in Ohio. Additionally, the White House has ordered 3M, which manufactures medical devices, to stop exporting N95 masks to other countries, including Canada.

At his Friday morning briefing, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau assured Canadians that his government was doing all it could to get much-needed supplies across the country, while also maintaining a positive and mutually-beneficial relationship with the U.S.

“We will always seek to make sure that trade with the U.S. remains open, because both countries depend on the exchange of essential goods and services in both directions,” Trudeau said, stressing that this included thousands of nurses who live in Windsor but work in the American health care system in Detroit.

“We are going to follow up on shipments, but in the meantime, we’re confident we’ll continue receiving what you need.”

Change from historical stance

A truck crosses the Bluewater Bridge border crossing between Sarnia, Ontario and Port Huron, Michigan on March 16, 2020. (Photo by Geoff Robins / AFP) (Photo by GEOFF ROBINS/AFP via Getty Images)

These examples bring to question whether the relationship between Canada and the U.S. will be one of the many things to shift during the pandemic.

The current dynamic between the two countries is vastly different from WWII, when the two sides bonded together and abolished the border, in order to freely transfer war supplies. Canadian agencies would sometimes have their own offices inside certain U.S. departments like agriculture and the wartime research and development undertaking, The Manhattan Project, which produced the first nuclear weapons. 

During the Cold War, both countries shared a list of supplies that they would not send to the opposing side, the Communists.  

But with the borders currently closed between the two countries, and starkly different leadership styles from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Donald Trump, does the current pandemic have the potential to put a strain on our relationship?

Robert Bothwell, a professor at the Monk School of Public Affairs, says that now is the time to work together for the best interest of the two countries.

“It would make a lot of sense to combine purchasing mechanisms that would allow us to order together and avoid competition,” he says. “What we don’t want is to be at the wrong end of a supply chain, with the U.S. above us, because Canada will lose every time.”

While the current administration is unlikely to agree to partnering with Canada to order and share supplies, those further down appear to be more willing.

For example, CBC reported that the mayor of Stewart, B.C. said last month that the town’s grocery store will continue to deliver supplies to Hyder, Alaska — population 80 — even if it means leaving them right at the border. The tiny American town relies on Stewart for essential resources like food and fuel.

Robert Speel, an associate professor at Penn State Erie, who co-teaches a class on Canadian-American relations with a professor at Ryerson, says Canada taking the lead at trying to block American visitors from entering the country can prove to be problematic.

 “This probably doesn't hurt diplomatic relations between the countries, but it does great damage, at least in the short term, to the tourist industry, to businesses along the border, and to people who have family and friends on both sides of the border,” he says. 

On the other hand, the two countries are working together to make sure that the supply chain is not interrupted by the border closures for routine visitors.

“With the approval of the new trade agreement earlier this year, that should indicate that commerce between the two countries can continue to thrive,” Speel says.