The federal government responded this weekend to three letters written by the Ontario government that call for stricter measures on international travellers crossing at land borders and on interprovincial travellers flying into the province.
In a letter dated May 7, 2021, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc tells Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott and Solicitor General Sylvia Jones that the federal government is willing to work with the province to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and it variants but is waiting for it to produce a list of international travellers it would like Ottawa to ban from entering Ontario.
"We welcome your specific requests for further refinements to the mutually agreed list of acceptable International travellers," LeBlanc writes in the four-page letter. "The federal government stands ready, however to date we have not received such a request."
The letter outlines the financial support that the federal government has provided to Ontario to fight the virus and provides a list of measures that the federal government has implemented to limit international air travel.
The letter notes that the government has prohibited all non-essential travel into Canada since March 2020 with a "very limited" number of exceptions. This measure includes closing the border with the U.S. except for essential supply lines and essential workers who deliver food and medicine and for some humanitarian purposes.
The letter does not respond specifically to a request made by the Ontario government for a three-day hotel quarantine for international travellers crossing at land borders.
On the subject of interprovincial travel, the letter notes: "... several provinces and territories have put in place additional measures to limit interprovincial travel, including implementing quarantine. I note that your government has taken some measures at interprovincial land borders to limit entry for non-essential travel. Premier (Doug) Ford noted a desire to manage or limit interprovincial air travel.
"As with other provinces and territories that have taken those measures, we are prepared to work with you to help facilitate additional provincial measures requiring interprovincial travel."
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The letter concludes by commending the Ontario government for prioritizing COVID-19 vaccines for vulnerable people and residents of hot spots and for instituting sick pay for workers under provincial jurisdiction.
"A science based data driven strategy is essential to ensure that when the time is right, we can resume a normal life," the letter says.
Alexandra Adamo, spokesperson for Premier Doug Ford, said in an email on Sunday in response to the federal letter: "The Premier has said he will use every tool at his disposal to protect Ontarians. This is an extremely urgent situation and we need the federal government to act now. We cannot sit back and watch the fourth wave of COVID-19 walk across our border."
In a letter dated April 29, 2020, Elliott and Jones had asked Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and federal Health Minister Patty Hadju to implement a three-day hotel quarantine at land crossings.
"Specifically, we are requesting the implementation of a three-day hotel quarantine in federally designated hotels at the highest traffic crossings, including those in Niagara, Windsor, Sarnia and Brockville. Some of these crossings, including the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls, are located in close proximity to other crossings. It is important that all air travellers in these regions are met with the same quarantine requirement, to ensure all points of entry are protected."
In a letter dated April 26, 2021, Elliott and Jones had asked Blair and Hadju to restrict interprovincial air travel through PCR testing (also known as polymerase chain reaction testing), which is lab testing to detect viruses.
Elliott and Jones had written: "We are asking that you implement mandatory pre-departure PCR testing for all domestic air travellers entering Ontario. This measure will be an extension to the current 72-hour PCR required for international passengers seeking entry into Canada."
And on April 22, 2021, Ford had asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reduce more incoming international flights and roll out more "protective actions" at the Canada-U.S. border.
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Peter Loewen, professor of political science, global affairs and public policy at the University of Toronto, said the exchange of letters is a bit of political theatre on both sides.
"What you've got here in sum is a couple of politicians, both of whom have actually fallen down on their jobs and are now kind of pointing at the other one saying, well, you need to do this better, the other one is saying you need to do that better," he said.
Loewen said Ford is trying to distract from the fact that Ontario is still in a third wave and there are unsafe work environments, while Trudeau is trying to distract from the fact that the Canada-U.S. border is actually "leaky" and the federal government is not tracking who is following quarantines.
"You've got two politicians — they're out of tricks, so what they're going to do is snipe back and forth at each other."
As for the Canada-U.S. border, the closure remains in effect at least until at least May 21.