The border crossing between the U.S. and Canada in Houlton. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — Four former American and Canadian politicians have formed a task force at the Wilson Center — one of Washington D.C.’s most influential think tanks — to examine how to properly reopen the border between the United States and Canada.

With the increasing prospect of vaccines being ready for distribution in early 2021 to fight the novel coronavirus central to the pandemic, a challenge remains: how to reopen the world’s longest land border. This includes not only ensuring COVID-19 will be contained, but also providing for the unique needs of different border communities, such as those along Maine’s Aroostook County.

Christopher Sands, PhD, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center, said that in addition to hearing from political experts, the task force wants to hear from border communities that have been affected by the extended closure. This includes businesses that have lost revenue and families that have been separated from each other due to the measures.

“We’re putting out a general call for anyone who wants to submit something for the committee to consider,” Sands said. “That will include academics, think tanks and chambers of commerce and any group that has an interest and wants to share something. We’ll take it all in, and we’ll hold a couple of meetings where we can hear from people.”

The task force is made up of four members, two each from the United States and Canada and all across the political spectrum. The two Americans are Rick Snyder, a former Republican governor of Michigan, and Christine Gregoire, a former Democratic governor of the state of Washington. The Canadians are Jean Charest, a former premier of Quebec and a member of the Progressive Conservative Party, and Anne McLellan, a former deputy prime minister belonging to Canada’s Liberal Party.

Spanning more than 5,000 miles of land, the U.S.-Canada border encompasses many unique communities with their own sets of challenges for how to reopen. For Maine, many of its affected communities share a border with the province of New Brunswick, which is part of the “Atlantic Bubble” within Canada consisting of provinces located east of Quebec.

The eastern Maritime provinces have seen some of the fewest recorded cases amongst the Canadian provinces, with travel restrictions even affecting visitors from other parts of Canada.

“We want to make sure we get as broad of a sense of the border [as possible], because the phasing might not be one size fits all,” Sands said. “People might say well okay, we can extend the Maritime bubble so that it includes Maine or parts of Maine, how would we do that or how would you cooperate in that?”

The Wilson Center said it will deliver its recommendations by March 2021, approximately a year after the initial border closure. It will also be under the administration of President-elect Joe Biden, who will assume office in January.

While Sands praised President Donald Trump’s administration for imposing border restrictions in cooperation with Canada, he said the arrival of President-elect Biden could provide a quicker top-down resolution to the border closure with his Canadian counterpart, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“President-elect Biden and Prime Minister Trudeau have had a good history. And I think they might well be open to talking and trying to resolve this problem,” Sands said. “So I’m a little more optimistic than I would have been under other circumstances.”

The Wilson Center is seeking feedback from individuals and organizations among border communities regarding how to safely reopen the border. Anyone interested in doing so may reach out to Sands via email at Christopher.Sands@wilsoncenter.org.

Correction: An previous version of this story misspelled the former Quebec Premier’s last name.

Watch more: