Canada attacks 'damaging' Trump plan to deploy troops at border

OTTAWA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Canada on Thursday slammed a U.S. proposal to deploy troops along their undefended border to help fight the spread of the coronavirus, saying the idea was unnecessary and would damage relations.

The uncompromising comments were a surprise, since Ottawa has enjoyed smooth relations with U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration over the past 18 months. Last week, the two nations agreed to close the border to non-essential travel to ease the outbreak’s strain on health systems.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday evening that Washington had dropped consideration of the plan, citing an unnamed U.S. official. Reuters could not immediately confirm the report.

Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland had made clear the Liberal government had no time for a plan to send hundreds of troops to the border to boost security.

“Canada is strongly opposed to this U.S. proposal and we have made that opposition very, very clear … this is an entirely unnecessary step which we would view as damaging to our relationship,” Freeland told a news conference.

“The public health situation does not require such action,” she said, noting Washington had yet to take a final decision.

Speaking at the White House, Trump appeared to lack details on the possible troop deployment and said he would look into the matter.

He said it would be “equal justice” since the U.S. military had deployed to play a support role on the border with Mexico.

A U.S. official familiar with the matter said that U.S. Customs and Border Protection was stressed on the northern border because virtually all patrol officers and border crossing officials were shifted to the southern border, where they are supplemented by a brigade from the 101st Airborne Division, a Marine battalion and National Guard personnel.

The Canada-U.S. border stretches 8,891 km (5,525 miles) and is a crossing point for one of the world’s largest bilateral trading relationships.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said earlier that Ottawa was in touch with U.S. authorities and would adjust border security measures if needed.

The United States now has the most coronavirus cases in the world, with over 82,000 infections and more than 1,200 deaths.

Canada, with a population about 1/9 that of its southern neighbor, has reported 4,043 coronavirus cases and 39 deaths.

The state of New York, which shares a border with Canada, has been an epicenter of the U.S. outbreak.

Tim Currier, the mayor of Massena, New York, a town of 13,000 people 9 miles (15 km) from the border, said a deployment could spark panic if it were not communicated properly.

“I’m concerned about how citizens look at that,” he said.

Canada is no longer accepting migrants who walk over the border at unofficial crossings, instead sending them back to the United States. Washington plans to return them to their countries of origin.

Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration policy with the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center, said the undefended U.S.-Canada border had long been a point of pride.

“I have not seen any reporting whatsoever of an increased threat posture at the U.S.-Canada border,” she said. “Did we not have other stuff that troops could and should be doing?”

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Canada doubles value of coronavirus stimulus package, promises cash, loan delays

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada has almost doubled the value of an aid package to help people and businesses deal with losses from the coronavirus outbreak, with Ottawa handing out more money than forecast, Finance Minister Bill Morneau said on Wednesday.

The package is worth C$52 billion ($36.62 billion), up from an initial C$27 billion outlined last week.

“That is a significant change because of the scale and the significance for people of these benefits,” Morneau said.

More than a million people signed up for unemployment benefits in the last week.

Oil companies asked Ottawa to free up cash and credit to survive, and banks could be hit harder than during the 2008 financial crisis.

The package, which Parliament approved earlier on Wednesday, includes an additional C$55 billion in tax deferrals.

About 3,400 Canadians have been diagnosed with the coronavirus and 31 have died.

Morneau said additional measures would be unveiled “in coming days.” In a sign of the outbreak’s economic damage, Canada’s most populous province Ontario estimated a wider budget deficit.

The aid package will give people affected by the outbreak C$2,000 a month and delay student loan repayments, among other measures to boost the economy, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.

A portal will be set up by April 6 for people who have lost jobs or are unable to work to apply for monthly payments, which will run for four months.

The plan delays student loan payments for three months.

Trudeau said Canada was testing 10,000 people a day for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, and Canada was ramping up production of emergency medical equipment and medication.

Sports equipment maker Bauer Hockey plans to modify its hockey visors into face shields for healthcare workers, while retailers Canada Goose Holdings, and Gap Inc said they would produce medical gear.

Officials ordered returning travelers to obey a 14-day quarantine or face fines and criminal charges. Lawyers scrambled to get inmates out of jail amid fears of spreading coronavirus in close quarters.

Legislators backed the Liberal government’s measures after it removed proposals that would have given Ottawa emergency spending powers without parliamentary approval until the end of 2021.

The modified bill caps Ottawa’s emergency spending power at six months and allows a House committee controlled by opposition legislators to force Parliament back over spending abuses.

Trudeau’s Liberals have a minority in the House of Commons and rely on other parties to govern.

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UPDATE 2-Ontario sees wider budget deficit as it provides C$17 bln coronavirus aid

(Adds economist quotes and details on budget) (y)

By Fergal Smith

TORONTO, March 25 (Reuters) – The Canadian province of Ontario, the world’s biggest sub-sovereign debtor, forecast on Wednesday a jump in its 2020-21 budget deficit as it provides a C$17 billion ($12 billion) financial package in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Canada’s most populous province and economic engine forecast a deficit of C$20.5 billion in the fiscal year beginning on April 1, including a C$2.5 billion reserve, an economic update from the Progressive Conservative government showed. That compares with an estimated deficit of C$9.2 billion for 2019-20.

Ontario scrapped its initial plans to release its budget on Wednesday because of the virus outbreak and instead provided an economic update.

The C$17 billion package includes C$7 billion to support the health care system, people and jobs, as well as C$10 billion through deferring taxes and other payments, the update said.

“We will do whatever it takes to protect people’s health and protect Ontario’s economy,” Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips said.

This week Ontario announced the shutdown of all non-essential businesses for at least two weeks, in an effort to contain the virus spread.

Canada’s federal legislators on Wednesday approved a C$52 billion aid package, nearly double the value outlined last week, as well as C$55 billion in the form of tax deferrals.

Ontario, home to manufacturers and Canada’s major financial center, sees no economic growth in 2020 after an estimated 1.6% expansion in 2019, while unemployment is projected to rise to 6.6% from 5.6%.

“I’d say that 2020 growth will probably be even weaker than they’ve assumed, but can’t fault them since the economic backdrop is changing so quickly,” said Robert Kavcic, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets.

He calculates that the province has “a pretty big cushion” built into the numbers of about C$5 billion.

With economic activity constrained, revenue is forecast to dip slightly to C$156.3 billion in the coming fiscal year, while program expenses are seen rising to C$161.1 billion from C$153.1 billion in 2019-20.

Net debt is seen rising to C$379.2 billion in 2020-21 from an estimated C$355.2 billion in the current fiscal year, which would raise net-debt-to-GDP to 41.7%.

Long-term public borrowing is seen rising to C$43.6 billion after the province pre-borrowed C$4.1 billion. It was estimated at C$36 billion in the current fiscal year.

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Canada-U.S. border to close as early as Friday, millions trying to return home

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Thursday that he expects the closure of the United States-Canada border to come into effect overnight on Friday and was working with domestic carriers to bring home citizens stranded overseas.

Canada, which closed its borders to most foreign nationals this week, agreed with the United States to close their shared border to “non-essential traffic” to curb transmission of the novel coronavirus.

Canada has 772 cases of the respiratory illness caused by coronavirus to date, and nine deaths. Some 55,000 people have been tested across the country so far, Chief Medical Officer Theresa Tam said.

The “day-by-day increases, with no links to travel,” continue to be a concern, Tam told reporters.

Known cases of the illness have surpassed 10,000 in the United States.

The Canadian government said this week it will provide C$27 billion ($18.6 billion) in direct support to families and businesses affected by the virus.

It was also examining whether to invoke the rarely used 1988 Emergencies Act, which would allow Ottawa to override provinces and restrict the movement of people and goods.

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Trudeau said on Thursday he was considering utilizing the military to help with procurement of supplies and urged Canadians to continue practicing social distancing.

“These are difficult and extraordinary times in which Canadians are taking difficult and extraordinary measures,” Trudeau told reporters outside his house, where he is in self-isolation after his wife tested positive for coronavirus.

The government is trying to accelerate procurement of medical supplies, officials said on Thursday, including more masks for healthcare workers.

“We have been able to get the swabs and the other things that the provinces needed,” Tam said. “There’s been a request at least, in the shorter term, for 7 million and we got suppliers to be able to cover about 75% of that.”

Ottawa has not received any requests for ventilators from provincial health authorities but has been acquiring some for its stockpile, Tam said.

Magna International (MG.TO), a major Canadian automaker and contract manufacturer with operations around the world, has promised to help with the potential production of ventilators, Ontario premier Doug Ford said.

“We can’t rely on importing these ventilators,” said Ford. “We have the people, we have the capacity, and we’re going to start manufacturing in Ontario.”

Many of the more than 3 million Canadians based overseas want to return home, officials said on Thursday, and many would need government help as commercial flights become increasingly limited.

Air Canada (AC.TO) said on Thursday it is holding talks with Ottawa to operate charter flights from international destinations to bring back stranded Canadians.

Canada’s largest carrier has said it will gradually suspend most of its international and U.S. transborder flights by March 31 in response to the new travel restrictions.

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