The Movement of Goods and People In and Out of Canada in a COVID-19 World

Revised on 7 October 2020, 12:10 p.m.
Any substantive changes in this HillNote that have been made since the preceding issue are indicated in bold print.

(Disponible en français : La circulation des biens et des personnes aux frontières du Canada dans un monde affecté par la COVID-19)

In the effort to contain COVID-19, the Government of Canada has announced measures that have resulted in restricting the entry of visitors and other temporary residents as well as some Canadian citizens and permanent residents into Canada. Some of these measures have also affected the movement of goods, understood as any merchandise, product, article or material. The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), which facilitates the movement of goods and people in and out of the country, is responsible for implementing these measures.

Movement of Goods

In 2018, Canada’s trade in goods with the world amounted to $1.18 trillion. Sustaining this level of trade during the current pandemic will depend on intergovernmental arrangements, Canada’s trading relations, changes in demand for goods, or disruption of supply chains as well as multilateral efforts to mitigate the effects on global trade.

1. Intergovernmental Arrangements

Canada and the United States (U.S.) have arrangements to mitigate cooperatively the impact of emergencies such as this pandemic on the cross-border movement of goods. The U.S.-Canada joint initiative, which was implemented on 21 March 2020, stems from this cooperative approach. Originally, the joint initiative temporarily restricted non-essential travel between the two countries, while still allowing the passage of goods, for 30 days, but it was subsequently extended. The latest extension expires on 21 October 2020.

It also builds on other bilateral arrangements such as the 2009 Plan for the Movement of Goods and People Across the Border During and Following an Emergency, the 2011 Declaration on a Shared Vision for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness, the 2012 Considerations for United States – Canada Border Traffic Disruption Management and the 2012 revised North American Plan for Animal and Pandemic Influenza, which also includes Mexico.

2. Canada’s Trading Relations

The U.S. is Canada’s top trading partner, with more than $2 billion in daily trade. In addition, Canada and the U.S. have a highly interconnected supply chain, with most goods transported by road and rail. For example, in 2018, approximately 11 million two-way trucking movements were registered at the Canada-U.S. border. The temporary measures announced in the U.S.-Canada joint initiative do not apply to cross-border trucking in order to preserve supply chains and to ensure the delivery of “food, fuel, and life-saving medicines” to both sides of the border.

For international markets, most of the goods traded between Canada and other countries are transported by sea and air. The pandemic has already disrupted the flow of goods by sea. Due to different restrictions worldwide, it has been estimated that there has been an overall 20 to 25 % drop in the volume of goods handled by the shipping sector as a result of the pandemic. Moreover, worldwide travel restrictions and the subsequent decrease in passenger travel are severely limiting the air cargo capacity to transport goods.

3. Changes in Demand for Goods and Disruptions of Supply Chains

The COVID-19 travel restrictions and closures have affected the global demand for goods, including oil. For Canada, there is a negative impact on the trade in crude oil and automotive goods between the U.S. and Canada. Four big automotive companies closed all their plants in North America. However, some automotive goods manufacturers are considering transforming their production lines to make needed medical equipment such as ventilators and masks. For example, Mitchell Plastics, an auto parts company, began using its facility in Kitchener, Ontario, to produce plastic face shields, which are part of the Personal Protective Equipment used to protect against COVID-19.

4. Canada’s Multilateral Efforts to Mitigate the Disruptions to Supply Chains and Global Trade

In order to alleviate the disruptions in supply chains, on 25 March 2020, Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, New Zealand and Singapore released a joint ministerial statement affirming the commitment to ensuring supply chain connectivity during the COVID-19 situation. Canada and the European Union also issued a joint statement outlining their collective efforts in addressing the multiple challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, including protecting the flow of vital supplies across borders.

On 17 April 2020, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, Morocco, Peru, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Turkey and the United Kingdom issued a joint declaration. These 13 countries committed to “coordinate their public health, travel, trade, economic and financial measures” to mitigate disruptions to global trade and movement of people and to ensure a strong economic recovery. They “stressed the importance of maintaining the flow of essential goods and supplies and the need to preserve maritime routes and air bridges.”

The federal government has also continued to work with its international partners, such as members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the Group of Twenty and the World Trade Organization, to ensure limited disruptions to global trade and world economies.

Movement of People

To stem the risks to public health, the movement of people at land border crossings, by air travel and in Canadian waters is increasingly limited by several Canadian government orders.

As of 25 March 2020, an Order in Council under the Quarantine Act imposes mandatory isolation upon arrival in Canada by air, sea or land. Individuals may be placed in a quarantine facility if their own plans are deemed inadequate, for example if they do not already have food for 14 days or a plan for delivery of food for that period. Canadians and permanent residents returning to the country are informed that they must go home without stopping along the way, wear a non-medical mask while in transit to quarantine and must begin 14 days of self-isolation. Contact information is collected to allow for follow-up. Failure to respect this order could result in a fine of up to $750,000 or six months in jail. Certain persons who cross the border regularly to ensure the continued flow of goods and essential services are exempt. Healthcare workers who enter Canada to directly care for persons over the age of 65 years must remain in quarantine for 14 days. This Order in Council is in effect until 31 October 2020.

1. Persons Entering Canada from the United States by Crossing the Land Border

Until recently, people going to work, tourists, cross-border shoppers, and truckers bringing in goods regularly crossed the Canada-U.S. border. Another Order in Council under the Quarantine Act was put in place and only Canadian citizens and permanent residents, persons registered under the Indian Act, foreign nationals who have already been determined in need of protection in Canada and certain persons allowed to make refugee protection claims can enter Canada at the land border, regardless of their health. Under this order, persons that can make a refugee claim at designated ports of entry are: a stateless person, a foreign national with a family member in Canada or facing the death penalty, an American citizen, and a person of public interest. An unaccompanied minor, a person that usually lives in the U.S. but is stateless, or an American can also make a refugee claim by entering Canada outside of a designated land border crossing. This Order in Council is in effect until 21 October 2020.

To enter Canada, all other foreign nationals must establish not only that they have no symptoms of COVID-19, but also that their purpose is essential, and that they have a plan to respect the latest mandatory isolation order. As of 9 June 2020, immediate family members are not subject to the “essential” test but must be coming to Canada for a stay of more than 15 days. The CBSA has reduced working hours at certain ports of entry and added modified hours at others in light of ongoing travel restrictions.

2. Persons Travelling by Air

As of 18 March 2020, only four airports located in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver accept international flights. Flights arriving from the U.S., Mexico, the Caribbean, or Saint-Pierre and Miquelon are not affected by this measure and can land at their regular destinations.

Another Order in Council under the Quarantine Act, in effect until 31 October 2020, coupled with an interim order under the Aeronautics Act, completes the current set of rules that apply to private operators of Canadian aircrafts, air carriers with scheduled international flights and passengers. A passenger showing symptoms of COVID-19 will be denied boarding regardless of nationality, and it is the private operator or air carrier’s duty to ask about passengers’ symptoms and inform them of the government orders. In addition, starting 20 April 2020, passengers must wear non-medical masks. Hefty penalties exist to enforce this, especially if a passenger makes a false statement. A person denied boarding because of the COVID-19 health checks must wait 14 days before attempting to fly again, unless they present a medical certificate indicating the symptoms were not linked to COVID-19.

No foreign national can fly to Canada from a country other than the U.S. unless they fit in a specific list of exemptions, such as family members of Canadian citizens and permanent residents, crew members, diplomats or individuals with letters from a consular official. As noted above, as of 9 June 2020, immediate family members are not subject to the “essential” test but must be coming to Canada for a stay of more than 15 days. A passenger flying in from the U.S. may still be refused entry into Canada if the purpose of the trip is deemed non-essential.

3. Exemption for Temporary Foreign Workers

In 2019, almost 98,500 temporary foreign workers (TFWs) arrived from other countries to work in Canada in agriculture, agri-food, seafood processing and other key industries. Many industries that employ TFWs expressed concerns about the travel restriction until the Government of Canada exempted TFWs coming for an essential purpose from those restrictions. Upon arrival, such TFWs are required to self-isolate for 14 days and employers must cover their salary for this period. The Government of Canada will provide financial support to employers of TFWs to ensure isolation requirements are fully met.

In April 2020, over 11,200 TFWs employed in the agricultural sector arrived in Canada, representing 86% of the number of TFWs who arrived in the same month last year.

4. Persons Entering Canadian Waters

Concern for Canadian communities who welcome cruise ships led to an Order in Council based on the Canada Marine Act introducing regulations to defer the cruise ship season to 31 October 2020. Two interim orders seek to protect Arctic waters until 31 October 2020: passenger vessels certified to carry more than 12 passengers are prohibited and the operation of pleasure crafts other than those used by local communities is restricted.

Persons entering Canadian waters on the Great Lakes who do not moor, anchor and do not make any contact with another conveyance historically do not need to report to the CBSA. This practice is maintained in the latest Orders in Council, which explicitly state that they do not apply to such persons.

Additional Resources

Sonya Norris and Isabelle Brideau, Federal Authorities During Public Health Emergencies, HillNotes, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 23 March 2020.

Julie Béchard and Laurence Brosseau, Temporary Immigration Measures in Response to COVID-19, HillNotes, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 17 June 2020.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, How the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is affecting immigration, refugees, citizenship and passport services.

Kate Hooper and Camille Le Coz, A Race Against the Clock: Meeting Seasonal Labor Needs in the Age of COVID-19, Migration Policy Institute, March 2020.

Christopher Herron, The Recent State of the Global Economy: A Month of Shocks, Information and Communications Technology Council, 17 March 2020.

Authors: Bashar Abu Taleb, Julie Béchard, Madalina Chesoi and Natacha Kramski, Library of Parliament