International Border Rights of Provinces

By Aaron Ekman

Composed January 27th, 2021

Manitoba announced this week that as of January 29th, anyone coming in to the province will be required to quarantine for two weeks.

Though this falls short of a ban on inter-provincial travel, it raises the question how British Columbia is responding to the high number of cases, and corresponding deaths related to the Covid-19 Corona-virus.

So far, British Columbia under John Horgan's BCNDP government has employed a comparatively liberal approach to "covid-lockdown" when held up against Maritime provinces, the Territories, certainly Ontario, and now even Manitoba. I'm not aware of any cross-BC polls with a sample size statistically significant enough to claim a majority of British Columbians favour further reductions in their freedom of mobility or otherwise, but not unpredictably, the loud but unscientific majority consensus of the twitter-verse would suggest most of us would invite more restrictions on our freedom. How often do you hear calls for "mandatory masks" or a "shutdown of the provincial border?" and what does it mean that such demands seem to be coming from the citizens of BC, rather than from the authority charged with limiting such freedom?

First, I don't buy that the majority of British Columbians welcome a shut down of our border with Alberta, at least not among those who live in our north-eastern quadrant. It's clear there's a vocal group of people, (most of whom live in the Lower-Mainland, and rarely, if ever, travel to other areas of BC, let alone Alberta.) most of whom are fortunate enough to work from home with no loss in pay who's major daily concern has been how to get a refund on their yoga membership, and making enough room in their living room to observe their replacement classes on YouTube.

For the majority of essential workers around the province for whom working from home is not an option; workers in grocery, construction, city services and major utilities, energy and healthcare, the prospect of a few Albertans making their way across the provincial border to visit their cabin in the woods is a non-risk compared to the volume of people they're forced to come into contact with on a daily basis.

It's also understandable that more Albertans would stream into BC than the other way around because... honestly... unless you live in Peace Country... who wants to go to Alberta?

but despite my thoughts on the matter, the question remains, should we close our Inter-provincial border?

Premier Horgan has responded by answering a slightly different question, not "should we close the border," but "can we?" He's answered this in the negative, determining a closure to be, in his words, "unenforceable."

And despite my reticence to agree that we should, I'm troubled by our Premier's opinion on whether we "can."

No one from Old Crow in the Yukon stopped to wonder whether they had the constitutional right to tell that young couple from Quebec who arrived one day without mittens in March 2020, that there was no room in town, and that they'd have to leave. Those young travellers were put up in a hotel one night, and back on a plane to Whitehorse the next, where health officials met them at the airport, and no one seems to know what happened to them afterwards. Do those travelling Quebecois have a constitutional right to challenge the manner in which they removed from town? Perhaps, and even if they had resources to initiate that challenge, Covid will likely be 3 pandemics behind us by the time the case is heard.

But shouldn't we be concerned that the BC Premier is so willing to abdicate all authority over inter-provincial travel? It seems a tad out of step with the Premier's past efforts to restrict the passage of Albertans, and in particular the pipeline parts and bitumen they'd like to carry through to the Pacific.

And is it true that a restriction on inter-provincial travel is unenforceable? Politicians in the Maritimes don't seem to think so, and regard their "Maritime Bubble" as having been quite effective in stopping the spread of the disease. Numerous First Nations communities in BC's interior have taken to enforcing their own "international travel restrictions," to considerable effect, and to point, just try getting out to Haida Gwaii right now.

You may say "it's easier to enforce restrictions on small communities and islands," and of course you'd be correct, but is an inter-provincial travel ban really "unenforceable?"

Sure, our border with Alberta is long, but it also generally follows the rocky mountains through which there are only a very limited number of passes. To the West, we have the pacific, through which we'd be quite capable of restricting entry if Canada ever bothered to maintain its commitment to our beleaguered and overstretched Coast Guard. To the south, of course, we have a restricted international border, and to the North... well, no one's really worried about those sturdy folk.

So what is it that makes all this so "unenforceable?" Are the RCMP unwilling to set up roadblocks? Sounds like another strong argument for the re-establishment of our provincial police force... though I doubt the RCMP would fail to act on any such restrictions announced by our Chief Provincial Health Officer, as, in theory, it's not for them to determine whether a health order is or is not constitutional.

None of this answers the question of whether BC SHOULD close the border. For my part, I don't think it would be worth the cost of enforcement, and potential legal challenges down the road. I don't see a glut of evidence demonstrating significant numbers of cases have been sourced to an influx of our eastern siblings. The hot spots are where in high density clusters where you'd expect them to be, care homes, prisons, meat processing plants, occasionally a school, etc. So it strikes me that the Premier's reluctance to is a combination of political and practical. BC could indeed shut the border to Alberta, and though likely not without some leaks pried open by the most determined, could indeed enforce a travel ban. It's just a matter of political will. And though the travel ban so many are calling for would realistically do more damage than good, we should all be just a little wary about a Premier who's appears unwilling to assert Provincial authority on behalf of British Columbian interests should we ultimately deem one necessary.

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