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U.S. Consul General talks border, economy and the Canada-U.S. relationship amid COVID-19

U.S. Consulate General Greg Stanford visited Windsor on Tuesday to hand out hundreds of gift cards to local restaurants to health-care workers still allowed to cross the U.S.-Canada border. 

While visiting the area, Stanford met with local leaders — including Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens — to discuss the situation amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Stanford sat down for a one-on-one interview with CBC Windsor News at 6 host Chris Ensing, to talk about the border, the economy, as well as the  relationship between Canada and the U.S. 

Michigan is a very important part of your life, what’s it been like to see the devastation caused by COVID-19?

Well it’s been very personal for me. My son is a senior at university there. And so once they started asking students to work remotely, he went home. We own a home just outside of Detroit. 

WATCH | U.S. Consul General Greg Stanford describes his role:

Greg Stanford isn’t the only U.S. Consulate General. Here, he explains what he does to foster the relationship between Canada and the U.S. 0:30

My wife who was with me decided it was probably prudent for her to go home. So, I would say in mid-March, they went back and I’ve been here ever since.

I have to admit, it’s comforting to know that there are such dedicated, courageous health-care workers that go across and help out vulnerable Americans in Detroit.

You’re dealing with something that a lot of families are dealing with. How are you doing with that divide, resulting from the restricted border? 

It’s been difficult. We try to leverage technology to stay in touch, and that’s not always satisfactory.

My son just reminded me today that it’s been two and a half months since we’ve been in the same physical space.

I try to tell him that we’re living in unprecedented times and that we need to adapt, but that we’re a family unit that’s strong and we will get through this together. 

When you look at how Michigan has reacted, when we think of the way that the auto industry has had to re-shift their focus, what are some of the conversations that you’re having when you think of that shift that’s been in place these past few months?

The mayor put together an incredible roundtable [Tuesday] morning and we had the auto sector represented, and the Windsor-Essex Chamber of Commerce and a number of others. 

And I think we’re all very mindful of the importance of that sector to cross-border economic prosperity. 

We’re working closely at all levels of government, federal level, provincial-state level and municipal level, to sort of work through these issues in ways that are mutually supportive, but are mindful that we’re living in a very unique time.

This is a unique time that’s created some tension specifically at the border. We’ve heard U.S. President Donald Trump say that he has concerns about the northern border. What’s it like for you in your role to make sure everyone is up-to-date, as the U.S. president continues to shift his focus?

What I can assure you is that our two governments are coordinating very closely in ways that again are mutually advantageous, that take into account the needs of both countries.

And that ultimately the decisions that are made, I think, are in the best interests of both countries. 

There was also another point where there were reports of possibly sending members of the military to the northern border as well. What was that like for you? 

I have to admit that the national defence area is a little out of my lane. My sense was these were very exploratory discussions and I think again showing just the robust, deep relationship we have, government to government. 

WATCH | Greg Stanford shares how his family has been affected by COVID-19 border restrictions:

Due to ongoing border restrictions between Canada and the United States, U.S. Consul General Greg Stanford shares how his family has been affected by COVID-19. 0:49

Conversations were had and I think agreements were reached that were mutually satisfactory. 

With everything that has happened in that regard, how do you make sure the relationship between the City of Windsor and the State of Michigan remains one where you can say, this is what we should plan for next? 

Well I think it’s through dialogue. I think it’s through engaging stakeholders. And we did that [Tuesday].

We had my counterpart, the Canadian consul general in Detroit Joe Comartin was on the call. And so we stay connected with a number of different stakeholders on both sides to make sure we understand and we have the information necessary to make informed decisions about these things as we go forward. Always understanding the interconnectedness of the two. 

The current restrictions between the Canada-U.S. border are set to expire on May 21. Canadian leaders in Ontario have signalled they don’t want those borders open just yet. As far as it relates to making sure the economies on both sides of the country are able to move forward with those limitations in place, how do you juggle all of that? From a public health perspective, from an economic perspective and then from that actual governing perspective as well?

Certainly it’s a delicate balancing act. And I know certainly in the early part of the pandemic, sometimes comments that were made that perhaps were taken out of context.

But again I go back to a need for the two countries, given how interconnected our economies are but also the people to people ties, to find that sort of balance between public health and allowing some level of economic activity to restart. 

Because I think that’s going to be key to both sides sort of navigating this pandemic.

When you talk about those conversations and dialogues that you’re having, what are some of the success stories that you’re hearing? You’re here specifically for health care, but are there other industries where you can point to something and say this is an example of that relationship? 

Well a number of things. I have a keen interest in innovation, science, technology and I would argue in certain areas, certain emerging technologies, Canada in general and Ontario in particular punches above its weight. 

So we’ve created what we call the US-Canada Innovation Partnership. And through that body, we’ve been able to highlight or advance a number of areas that are directly in support of overcoming COVID-19. So I think North America has a competitive advantage in a number of emerging technologies in innovation and I think we need to build on that. 

As far as just this border, is there a worry that the U.S. is going to want to open that border, but Canadian officials might not be prepared for that, and what those discussions might look like? 

My understanding is that these conversations are very closely coordinated and they take into account the interests of multiple stakeholders.

WATCH | Greg Stanford talks Canadian innovation:

U.S. Consul General Greg Stanford shares his opinion on Canadian innovation, as well as steps being taken to combat COVID-19. 0:54

Ultimately borders are handled on a federal to federal level. And again, I think on both sides they are informed by critical business leaders, state or provincial leaders. But I think they have to take into account what is best for the entire country. 

When we look at the U.S., do you think they might have a different view — or a better view — of what the communities of Windsor-Essex have to offer, not just during this pandemic, but during normal times as well?

I’d like to argue that certainly the people in Detroit and people in Michigan have always appreciated and valued what is on offer here. And obviously, in the auto sector very close ties. 

But I think there is a greater appreciation. 

We here have also seen health-care workers who have decided to live in Windsor, because our hospital doesn’t operate the way that it needs to unless those professionals are there. To see those people, your neighbours, make that life-changing decision, how does that make you feel?

It’s just incredibly touching and moving that people would make such sacrifices for the greater good of the community. It’s really something to be praised. 

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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