Northern towns straddling Canada-U.S. border push to become a pandemic bubble
Stewart, B.C., and the neighbouring community of Hyder, Alaska, have always had close ties despite being divided by an international border for more than a century. COVID-19 travel restrictions enacted this spring, however, have left residents feeling disconnected for the first time, separating them from relatives, services and even schools.
“It has been my home for 50 years and I never felt isolated until this year,” said Caroline Stewart, a resident of Hyder, a small community on the southern part of the Alaskan panhandle.
The communities, which are about three kilometres apart, are surrounded by mountains and the rugged wilderness of northwestern B.C. and Alaska. For the dozens of residents who live in Hyder, daily life has a few unique freedoms — there are no local taxes or police department, but also no grocery store or gas station.
The current restrictions mean that Hyderites who frequently travelled to Stewart before the pandemic can no longer do so unless it is essential, and Canadians who visit Hyder have to quarantine for 14 days after returning.
The towns lie hundreds of kilometres from the nearest city, so residents on both sides of the border are petitioning politicians in Canada and the U.S. to allow the area to form its own COVID-19 bubble, which would permit free movement in the region.
The rules have led to protests and gatherings at the border station parking lot, where residents meet to swap stories and bring each other groceries and other necessities.
On an afternoon during the last week of September, Caroline Stewart, an American, met her Canadian niece who lives across the border to pick up a plastic bag of Tostitos and some feminine hygiene products.
She spoke to CBC News through tears, talking about how she can no longer go to Stewart to take communion at the church, or to spend time with her friends and family who live on the other side of the border.
“We are designed to be in a group,” she said.
“We run in packs, and our pack has been cut off.”
Grown out of gold rush
The towns are sparsely populated, with about 400 people living in Stewart and just 63 across the border in Hyder.
During the gold rush, it was a much more lively and often chaotic setting, as 10,000 settled here searching for fortune. But when the boom dried up, the communities were hollowed out.
Today there are still mines in the area. Every day dozens of Canadian workers who are deemed essential cross the border, because the only way to reach one Canadian mine is take a road that goes through the U.S.
While workers can travel freely, everyone else faces restrictions.
A simple yellow gate and a faded sign that says “Welcome to Hyder” marks the divide, but there are no American border guards stationed here. Anyone can freely cross to the U.S. side, but there is nowhere to go once you arrive except to watch the grizzly bears who converge on a nearby stream filled with salmon.
Hyder is mostly landlocked by Canada and residents say a ticket on a float plane out from the community can cost as much as $2,000 US.
Hyderites depend on Stewart for their supplies, which is why under the COVID-19 rules one member from each household is allowed into the community once a week to run errands. They have to check in and out with the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers at the station on the Canadian side.
For 61-year-old Dick Simpson, his outing includes a trip to the grocery store, gas station, the library and a laundromat where he fills up the machine with clothes and inserts loonies and toonies. With little to buy in Hyder, everyone carries Canadian currency.
Simpson can’t make any social calls, which he says is the hardest part of the pandemic, considering most of his friends live in Stewart.
He said while he follows the rules, he has heard about a few unauthorized border-crossers, whose actions have been fuelled by what he calls “desire.”
Simpson pointed up to a cut line in the trees on the mountain, which marks the dividing line between Canada and the U.S., and remarked that to get to the other side, it’s just about a kilometre hike away.
“If someone feels that they need to see someone bad enough, they will find a way to get across there,” he said, adding that during prohibition more than one bottle of Canadian whisky ended up in Hyder.
Simpson first moved up here in the 1970s with his parents, who he described as “survivalists.” He moved away to work in construction in Washington State and Oregon, but returned a decade ago.
“I can understand both sides of the equation,” Simpson said.
“It would be nice to come and do the things that we used to do over here. On the other hand, I would feel horrible if Hyder introduced COVID into Stewart or if Stewart introduced COVID to Hyder.”
He said the fear of the virus is why some residents are reluctant to support the idea of a unified bubble.
Vivian Culver, a Hyder resident, said she thinks it can work if everyone does their part.
She is an American, and her husband is a Canadian. They own places in Stewart and in Hyder. He works on ships and can’t go to Hyder because he can’t miss two weeks of work to quarantine in Canada upon return.
Culver said she is frightened because she believes she already suffered through COVID-19 back in early March.
“I don’t think I would survive it again,” she said.
So she is living on her own and trying to prepare for winter, and hopes the federal government will relax the rules and allow the community to merge into one bubble.
While Alaska currently has more than 9,000 cases of COVID-19, Hyder’s only connection to the rest of the state is through a mail plane that is supposed to come a few times a week, but which frequently gets cancelled due to weather. Hyder also has its own quarantine policy which requires visitors and returning residents to self-isolate for two weeks.
The NDP MP for the area, Taylor Bachrach, has been lobbying for the bubble idea. Bachrach met with the Minister for Public Safety last month and has also talked to officials in the U.S.
Bachrach said his fellow politicians seemed supportive of the bubble, but there has been no change as of yet and with winter coming, there is potential for even more isolation as the area can get several metres of snow a year.
Separated from school
The hope is that a COVID bubble would allow people to cross the border freely, including a few children in Hyder who are currently not allowed to attend the elementary school in Stewart.
Hilma Korpela was supposed to start Grade 5 this fall, and her younger sister Ellie, Grade 3. But they are now home-schooled because the only school in Hyder closed last May due to low attendance.
They say they miss their Canadian friends. They had been meeting one of them for play dates in a marshy field adjacent to the Canadian border, where they would run barefoot through chilly tide pools and scamper across logs. However, they have recently been told by the CBSA that the area is off-limits because it straddles the border.
So now in addition to being blocked from going to school, they can really only play with the two other children living in Hyder.
“I don’t think it is really fair. Like, how do we get COVID?,” Hilma said.
“We are at the end of the line.”