How the US-Canada border closure will disrupt life in this Canada border town

Mar 20, 2020

The US-Canada border is set to close Friday at 11:59 p.m. as both countries work to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The flow of goods between the two nations — which share one of the world’s largest bilateral trading relationships — would continue, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday. Essential personnel will also still be allowed to cross. 

Still, it's a big disruption for the people of Windsor, Ontario. Windsor and Detroit are separated by the Detroit River, but connected by a bridge and tunnel.

Drew Dilkens is the mayor of Windsor. He spoke to The World's host Marco Werman about what the border closure means for two communities that are so intertwined.

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Marco Werman: How is the US-Canada border closure affecting the people of Windsor right now?

Drew Dilkens: We like to say we're the place where Canada starts. And folks here are just used to shopping, buying gas, going over for groceries, going over for lunch to Detroit and then coming back to Windsor, we're that close. And the economies are so tightly integrated, and the supply chains for business are so tightly integrated that it will be a bit of a disruption for people who are used to that kind of movement; but it's positive to know that essential workers will still be able to cross the border. And, of course, all trade is still able to cross into Canada and into the United States. 

So, there are exceptions to the border closure, like nurses and medical professionals. 

It is absolutely essential that some of these workers be able to cross the border. And we just look back not too long ago at what happened just shortly after 9/11, where there was a temporary border closure. But then the wait times to get staff to move through the border after 9/11, it could take five or six hours because there were such great inspections going on, on both sides of the border that hospitals in the city of Detroit were actually talking about renting helicopters and renting boats to be able to bring health care workers that live in our community across to the city of Detroit to make sure that they could continue their operations. 

Tell us a bit more about Windsor and its connection to Detroit. Do you get commuters coming from the US to Windsor every day as well? 

Yeah, there are about 800 folks who cross from Michigan into Windsor every day for work, and about 6,000 cross from Windsor into Detroit. And so the economies are so tightly integrated and you have deep family relationships over time. History and geography have sort of created that down here with us and the folks in Detroit. And so you have really tight connections on both sides of the border. And we really look at the border as just a necessary thing to go through to get to the other side. And it's just seen as a natural extension of the state of Michigan. And so, I've always said that the best part of living in the city of Windsor is you have this great, safe, small-town Canadian feel of a population of around 240,000 people. But when I want professional sports, NFL, NBA, all of that is literally 10 minutes away through the border in Detroit. So, we've got this small-town feel of a Canadian city, but the access very easily to all of the major entertainment of a place like Toronto. 

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Mayor Dilkens, you must be pretty happy that people seem to be taking the stay-at-home protocol seriously. So, has traffic pretty much stopped? Are the bridge and tunnel close to zero cars in it right now? 

You're seeing people who have to go to work still crossing. But there are zero wait times. You see traffic going back and forth, truck traffic deliveries, of course, going both ways. So, that hasn't stopped, which is really positive. And of course, it's probably, if I look at this, slightly increased, because there's been such a demand on groceries and places like Costco and Walmart for supplies that they're working as fast as they can to get supplies to market. But commuter traffic definitely has ground almost to a halt. 

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Detroit is, of course, Motor City, but the automotive sector is just as important to Ontario as it is to Michigan. It's like a single economy. What is this moment doing to the car business? 

Detroit is the automotive capital of the US, and Windsor is the automotive capital of Canada. And it's not a surprise that it's that way, because the supply chains for the automotive industry are so tightly integrated that, you know, I guess the best example to say is that the average part that goes into a car that rolls off the final assembly on the line crosses the border six to eight times before it gets put into the car that rolls off the line. And so, because the Big Three has really closed down operations until the end of the month, certainly we're seeing a stop there.

I think, you know, in some ways the world, at least our world here, it's just — everyone's taking a pause. 

Mayor, you're at home. And it's my understanding that you are currently in self-quarantine over COVID-19. Were you diagnosed positively? 

No, I've not had a test and myself and my family feel completely fine. We took the precaution because we had a trip to Jordan in the Middle East, and although that was a very low-risk country, the recommendations from the medical officers of health here is that if you've traveled outside of Canada, that you should quarantine or self-isolate for 14 days. So, we're just, you know, we're showing leadership and showing folks what they should do, despite the fact that we all feel completely healthy and completely fine and don't think that we have caught this virus.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.


From The World ©2019