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

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25 March 2021, 9:10 a.m.

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In March 2020, in an effort to contain COVID-19, the Government of Canada announced measures that have restricted 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.

This HillNote examines the factors that affect the movement of goods and people in and out of Canada at this stage of the pandemic.

Movement of Goods

In 2019, Canada’s trade in goods with the world amounted to $1.2 trillion. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on the movement of goods in and out of Canada. The ongoing impact of the pandemic on trade depends on North American intergovernmental arrangements, Canada’s trading relations, changes in demand for goods, disruption of supply chains and multilateral efforts to mitigate the effects on global trade.

1. North American Intergovernmental Arrangements

Canada and the United States (U.S.) have cooperative arrangements to mitigate the impact of emergencies such as the pandemic on the cross-border movement of goods. The U.S.-Canada joint initiative, implemented on 21 March 2020, stems from this approach. Originally, for 30 days, the joint initiative temporarily restricted non-essential travel between the two countries, while still allowing the passage of goods, but it was subsequently extended. The latest extension expires on 21 April 2021.

The joint initiative also builds on other bilateral and plurilateral 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

All modes of goods transportation recorded a decline in the value of Canada’s goods exports and imports in 2020. Total merchandise exports declined by 12.3% and imports by 8.6% compared to 2019 (Figure 1).

Figure 1 – Canada’s total merchandise exports and imports from December 2015 to December 2020, in billions of current dollars

The value of Canadian exports and imports showed a generally steady and slightly increasing trend between December 2015 and February 2020. In March 2020, the value of Canadian exports and imports declined sharply from some $50 billion dollars to a low of roughly $35 billion in April and May 2020. By December 2020, the value of imports had returned to historic levels but the value of exports had not yet recovered completely.

Note: Data are on a balance of payments basis and are seasonally adjusted.
Source: Statistics Canada, “Table 12-10-0121-01: International merchandise trade by commodity, monthly (x 1,000,000)”, Database, accessed 22 February 2021.

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. 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. Canadian goods exports by truck declined in April and May 2020 due to auto plant shutdowns before returning to normal as of July 2020.

Most of the goods traded between Canada and other countries are transported by ship and air. Goods exported by water, which declined by 9.4% between January and September 2020, were the least affected of all the modes of transportation. This is because the increase in Canadian goods exports to China since April 2020 partially mitigated lower Canadian goods exports to the United States. Worldwide travel restrictions and the subsequent decrease in passenger travel severely limited air cargo capacity to transport goods. Canadian goods exports by air from January to September 2020 declined by 11.1% compared to the same period in 2019.

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. In March 2020, four big automotive companies temporarily closed all their plants in North America. Some automotive goods manufacturers transformed 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. In contrast, Canada’s agriculture goods exports improved in March 2020.

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

In order to alleviate the disruptions in supply chains, the federal government continued to work with its international partners, such as the members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the Group of Twenty and the World Trade Organization (WTO), to ensure limited disruptions to global trade and world economies. For instance, the June 2020 Statement of the Ottawa Group, a group of like-minded WTO members on WTO reforms, indicated that it will “remain engaged in discussions outside of the WTO, in various configurations, to advance work to safeguard and protect global supply chains.”

Movement of People

To stem the risks to public health in Canada, a series of government orders has limited the movement of travellers at land border crossings, by air travel and in Canadian waters. Discretionary travel into Canada continues to be prohibited for foreign nationals. There are exceptions, for example, to allow persons to come to Canada for a funeral.

Measures have been introduced such as the need for travellers to be tested before and after arriving in Canada, and stricter self-isolation measures. In addition, recent agreements between the government and Canadian airlines led to the cancelation of flights to and from Mexico and the Caribbean from 31 January 2021 to 30 April 2021.

The rules for the restrictions at Canada’s borders are detailed in three Orders in Council that govern quarantine measures (valid until 21 April 2021); people entering from the United States (valid until 21 April 2021); and people entering from other countries (valid until 21 April 2021).

Interim order No. 24 under the Aeronautics Act (valid between 17 March 2021 to 31 March 2021), instructs what airlines and passengers must do before boarding a flight, such as taking a pre-boarding COVID-19 test. A passenger showing symptoms of COVID-19 will be denied boarding regardless of nationality.

1. Persons Who Can Enter Canada

The land border is open to 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. Furthermore, 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.

For travellers flying to Canada, arrivals are restricted to four airports. Since 22 February 2021, international travellers must arrive either in Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal or Toronto. No foreign national can fly to Canada for discretionary purposes unless they qualify for a specific exemption, such as spouses and children of Canadian citizens and permanent residents, crew members, diplomats or individuals with letters from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

As of October 2020, “extended family members,” meaning adult children, siblings, grandparents, and committed persons in long-term relationships, can enter Canada if they stay for more than 15 days, respecting the 14‑day quarantine. Compassionate exceptions have been developed, for example, to attend to a person in need of support or dying.

Temporary foreign workers deemed essential to Canada’s economy can arrive from other countries to work in key industries such as agriculture. Several facilitative measures were taken in the spring of 2020 to ensure their entry to Canada.

2. Measures to Mitigate Risks to Public Health

As early as March 2020, under the Quarantine Act, wearing non-medical masks and mandatory quarantine upon arrival in Canada have been the norm. All travellers must have a quarantine plan that includes details such as where the person intends to self-isolate and how that individual will have food for 14 days. Should the quarantine plan seem inadequate, the person can be refused entry at the border or may be placed in a federal quarantine facility for 14 days of self-isolation.

Current self-isolation measures depend on increased mandatory testing. Facing COVID-19 variants, the government began requiring pre-arrival molecular COVID-19 testing the first week of January 2021. In February 2021, testing became necessary upon entry and there are requirements for further follow-up tests at different intervals depending on the mode of transport.

COVID-19 testing pre-arrival and post-arrival

Travellers driving into Canada must show proof of a negative COVID-19 molecular test taken 72 hours before coming to the border. At land border crossings, travellers are provided with two COVID-19 tests kits: one to take the day they cross into Canada and reach their quarantine location, and the other to take after 10 days of their 14 days of quarantine. At major border crossings there is on-site testing for which prior registration is necessary.

Travellers arriving by air must show proof of a negative COVID-19 molecular test taken 72 hours before boarding as well as pre-paid accommodations for their three-day stay in a government approved hotel. Travellers are also tested upon entry and must await those results in the hotel before continuing to their planned quarantine location for the remaining days of self-isolation. They are provided a test kit to administer before ending quarantine and resuming their activities.

Travellers who have recovered from COVID-19 can continue to test positive long after they have recovered and are no longer infectious. To address the potential for residual positive tests, travellers who have previously tested positive for COVID-19 can provide proof of a positive COVID-19 test collected between 14 and 90 days prior to departure, instead of a negative COVID test.

Exceptions to self-isolation regime

Certain persons who cross the border regularly to work or to ensure the continued flow of goods and essential services are exempt from self-isolation measures.

The government also exempted temporary foreign workers from the hotel quarantine if they work in the agriculture, agri-food, and fish and seafood sectors, are asymptomatic and can travel directly to their place of quarantine by private transportation. Employers must provide 14 days of quarantine at their final destination and ensure a safe working environment for these individuals.

3. Persons Entering Canadian Waters

To ensure the health and safety of coastal communities and transportation workers, two interim orders were issued to prohibit non-essential navigation in Canadian waters including the Arctic until 28 February 2022. Passenger vessels carrying more than 12 people and pleasure crafts, other than those used by local communities, are prohibited from entering Arctic waters unless they have a written authorization from the Minister of Transport.

Additional Resources:

Sonya Norris and Isabelle Brideau, Federal Authorities During Public Health EmergenciesHillNotes, 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.

Eleni Kachulis and Mayra Perez-Leclerc, The Temporary Foreign Worker Program and COVID-19, HillNotes, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 15 February 2021.

Global Affairs Canada, “Chapter 2: Early impacts of COVID-19 on Canada’s international trade,” Canada’s State of Trade 2020.

Statistics Canada, Canadian international merchandise trade, December 2020, 5 February 2021.

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



Categories: COVID-19, International Affairs and Defence, Trade

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