The Canadian government says it's “strongly opposed” to the idea of sending American troops to the border to intercept illegal migrants as part of that country's response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is an entirely unnecessary step, which we would view as damaging to our relationship,” said Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland today following the first public reports that White House officials are thinking about stationing soldiers near the Canadian border.
“Canada is strongly opposed to this U.S. proposal and we've made that opposition very, very clear to our American counterparts.
“At the end of the day, every country takes it own decisions but ours is an important and valued partnership and we are making clear Canada's position.”
WATCH: Freeland says Canada 'strongly opposed' to U.S. troops at border
A source with knowledge of those discussions told CBC News the White House is looking at placing 1,000 troops about 25 kilometres from the 8,891 kilometre-long border and using remote sensors to look out for irregular border-crossers.
The source stressed that the U.S. hasn't made a final decision.
Another source — who spoke on the condition they not be named because they were not authorized to discuss the measures — said that if the plan moves ahead, the deployed U.S. Department of Defence personnel wouldn't have any law enforcement powers. They'd be tasked with watching for people crossing between ports of entry who could be carrying the virus that causes COVID-19 and reporting such people to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, they said.
As first reported by Global News, White House officials are actively discussing the plan because of border security concerns related to COVID-19 — raising diplomatic tensions on both sides of the border.
Canada found out a few days ago: Freeland
Freeland said Canada became aware of the possibility of troop movements near the border “a couple of days ago.”
“We understand the concerns about the coronavirus. We share those concerns, very much,” she said.
“What we have said is, 'We really do not believe at all that there would be a public health justification for you to take this action. Of course, it's up to you to decide for yourselves.' And we've said we really don't think this is the right way to treat a trusted friend and military ally.”
WATCH: Trudeau on Trump considering sending troops to the border
In his daily news conference this morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the unprotected border has benefited both countries for decades.
“Canada and the U.S. have the longest unmilitarized border in the world. It is very much in both of our of interests for it to remain that way,” he said.
“It's benefited our two countries, our two economies, tremendously. We feel that it needs to remain that way.”
Former U.S. ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman, who served under Barack Obama, said he believes Trump is just preying on domestic fears about the spread of the virus.
“Doing this is purely political. Expect it has long-term ramifications for the relationship,” he said. “It's nefarious, it's very high-risk and it's very unfortunate that we even have to discuss this today. This should never take place.”
Heyman said he doesn't believe there's a threat associated with people trying to sneak out of Canada into the U.S.
“Everybody kind of expects radical, crazy things coming out of the White House — but this, this is beyond anything I could have ever imagined or expected from Donald Trump,” he said.
Non-essential travel ban already in place
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures, their officers apprehended more than 4,400 migrants at the Canada-U.S. border last year. About half of those border crossers were of Mexican nationality, while 322 were Canadian citizens.
The two countries have a mutual ban in place on non-essential travel across the border, which includes trips for recreational purposes.
When that ban was announced, both sides stressed the importance of continuing to allow trade, commerce and cross-border essential workers to move back and forth over the border. As part of the temporary agreement, Canada has also agreed to return asylum-seekers attempting to enter the country outside of official border points.
The border issue will be the first major political headache for Kirsten Hillman in her official role as Canada's ambassador to the United States, made official today.
Hillman had been serving as acting ambassador since David MacNaughton stepped down last summer. Freeland said she's already been part of discussions about the Trump administration's proposal.
She served as chief negotiator on Canada's Trans Pacific Partnership team under the previous Conservative government and is widely respected in both Liberal and Conservative circles for her track record as a negotiator.
“Canadians should be very comfortable you have a professional who is in place, who understands and knows the U.S.-Canada relationship as well as anybody,” said Heyman.