In recent days, many Canadians watched in disbelief when protesters easily blocked many access points between the United States and Canada. For six painful days, this included the Ambassador Bridge, a key trade conduit between the two countries, forcing trucks to be rerouted towards Sarnia. Other border crossings were disrupted in Manitoba and Alberta. Many shipments were delayed, and some cargo had to be scrapped. Blueberries, greens – more waste and more costs to the industry and to consumers. And now, the Trudeau government is invoking the Emergencies Act.
Given how far things have gone, the Trudeau government has had to consider all options. Disrupting cities like Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, and other urban centers can be troubling for their citizens. But the risks are significantly different when trade between two countries stops. If supply chains are the backbone of our economy, the border is its spinal cord. The impact was immediate. Manufacturing plants were closing, and it took barely a few hours before the White House gave a call to Prime Minister Trudeau to share its concerns. Our food supply chain is messy these days, and the last thing it needed was more human induced logistical predicaments, created by the very disruptive truckers’ convoy.
If some didn’t know that the international border between Canada and United States was the focus for both economies over the years, now they know. Maintaining the longest border in the world open, peaceful, and disruption-free is no easy feat. It has taken decades to foster a spirit of interdependence between the two countries, especially for the agri-food sector. In the last year, Canada was the second largest export market for U.S. agricultural exports, totaling over $26 billion and accounting for 15% of total U.S. agricultural exports. At the same time, the United States imported over $30 billion worth of agricultural products from Canada. That border is busy and without it, the food security landscape in Canada would look quite different.
Economically, the impact of blockades will be inconsequential. Companies have a way of dealing with anything we throw at them, especially in food distribution. Empty shelves are bad for business and both importers and exporters will do anything not to see us leave grocery stores empty-handed. The damage, though, is beyond numbers. What may be impacted by blockades is reputation and trust. To be summoned, in a way, by Washington was nothing short of embarrassing. This is Canada, one of the most peaceful countries in the world.
As the smaller and less economically influential of the two trading countries, Canada has a lot more to lose. America, logistically, has more options. Blocking a border will have potentially long-term consequences. This may persuade the United States to reconsider strategic alternatives or change its stance on certain more sensitive trade issues, like softwood lumber and dairy. Canada may just have made a stronger case for “America First” advocates.
But consumers will be hurt the most. It is much too soon to know how Canada’s food affordability will be impacted by the unlawful blockades. But with many shipments being destroyed or delayed, and adding the increasing pressures related to fuel costs, we are expecting some food prices to potentially rise beyond what was predicted just a few months ago. Canadians are facing enough financial pressures right now. This added a layer which is simply not necessary.
Logistically, the concept of using driverless vehicles using autonomous technology for micro and large-scale highway freight transport has merit, more than ever perhaps. Some companies have had to cut production due to procurement issues caused by blockades. It has made some companies think differently about transportation across North America and getting rid of humans behind the wheel may be an option with more appeal now than before.
In the end though, blockades did happen for a reason. But for our trading partner the United States, it doesn’t matter what the reason is. Some damage was done. For our food supply chain’s sake, there’s nothing more disruptive than civil unrest. Nothing. Worse than climate change. Reputation and trust are damaged, permanently in some cases. No matter how we look at what is happening, Ottawa now has some serious diplomatic issues to address. So invoking the Emergencies Act is also about Canada’s reputation abroad.