By Brad Dokken
INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. – Lawmakers on both sides of the Rainy River heard from northern Minnesota residents here Tuesday, April 6, about the impact the ongoing U.S.-Canada border closure is having on their lives and livelihoods.
About 15 panelists participated, both in-person and virtually, Tuesday morning in a roundtable discussion in the historic Backus Community Center. U.S. Reps. Michelle Fischbach and Pete Stauber, both R-Minn., hosted the roundtable to learn about the impact the border closure has had on the communities they represent.
Fischbach represents the Seventh Congressional District, which includes Lake of the Woods, and Stauber represents District 8, which includes the U.S.-Canada border from Rainy Lake to the tip of the Arrowhead in northeast Minnesota.
Canadian Members of Parliament Marcus Powlowski, a Liberal Party member who represents the Thunder Bay-Rainy River constituency, and Dan Mazier, a Conservative Party member who represents the western Manitoba regions of Dauphin-Swan River and Neepawa in the House of Commons, attended the meeting virtually.
“This issue is extremely important,” Stauber, who was elected to Congress in 2018, said of getting the border reopened. “I’ve been working on it for over a year, and today’s event is to talk about not only the importance, but the next steps” in that process.
The event was streamed live on YouTube, and while the panelists in International Falls were difficult to hear much of the time, those participating by Zoom were clearly heard.
“Certainly, we want the border open, and the border will open,” Powlowski said by Zoom, adding that even though he’s a Liberal Party Member of Parliament, he does not speak for the Canadian government. “Obviously, the question is when. I think as far as Canada is concerned, the health and safety of the Canadian citizens is paramount. But I think there is an answer, and the answer in my mind is the vaccinations. … I think really the answer is going to be a proof of vaccination.”
None of the panelists who spoke Tuesday, perhaps, was more frustrated by the border closure than Paul Colson, a third-generation owner of Jake’s Northwest Angle Resort on Lake of the Woods. Like many other business owners on the Angle, Colson watched his business dwindle to near-nothing last March when the U.S.-Canada border closed to nonessential travel.
Since then, the border closure has been extended in one-month increments on the 21st of every month.
Because customers couldn’t travel to the resort by road – the Angle is surrounded on three sides by Canada and accessible from Minnesota only by crossing some 40 miles of Lake of the Woods – a year that was shaping up to be one of his best ever ended up being his worst, Colson said. Jake’s Northwest Angle Resort contributed less than $3 in lodging taxes to Lake of the Woods County coffers for the months of May, June and July of 2020, he said.
An ice road across the lake that allowed travelers to bypass Canada salvaged the winter season at the Northwest Angle, but with that option gone, the area again is essentially cut off by road.
Colson’s frustration hit a new level early Tuesday morning. While leaving the Northwest Angle to attend the meeting in International Falls, Colson said he was informed by a Canada Border Services Agency official – upon entering Manitoba en route to the U.S. – that he would have to pass a PCR COVID-19 test before he would be allowed back through Canada to return to his home.
Canada implemented the PCR testing requirement in mid-February for travelers entering the country by road. Until recent days, the policy hasn’t affected permanent Northwest Angle residents, who have been able to travel through Canada for essential services in border communities such as Roseau and Warroad, Minn.
Now all of a sudden, that policy has changed, Colson said. Even though he also planned to buy groceries and run some other errands Tuesday, Colson said Canada’s COVID-19 testing requirement basically leaves him marooned with no way home.
“So that’s where I’m at today, I don’t have a home – a home I can get to – because there’s ice on the lake,” Colson said in an interview before Tuesday’s meeting. “I can’t take my sled, I can’t take a boat, there’s no airport. The only way I can get home is if I find somebody to take me in there with a helicopter.”
Even if he does take the PCR test, the fastest he’s heard of anyone getting test results where he lives is four days, Colson said. The rapid antigen tests that provide results in 15 minutes aren’t acceptable under Canada’s policy.
Rural areas hurt most
Mazier, the MP for western Manitoba in the House of Commons, said rural Canada, like rural America, is suffering the most from the lingering pandemic and border closure.
“The problem with this all is not having a clear path,” Mazier said. “Business hates uncertainty, and this is what’s driving us into the ground on these different decisions.
“We need a definite plan and we need to be both on the same page – that I can’t emphasize enough. We need to be both talking as neighbors, ‘How are we going to overcome this?’ And I think that’s going to be the key in the coming months.”
Like Colson, each of the panelists Tuesday shared stories about the impact of the border closure. Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism, said the U.S. and Canada need to work on establishing a travel corridor to cross through Manitoba to the Northwest Angle, whether it be pilot cars, a signed affidavit for Angle-bound visitors to state their travel plans or GPS tracking for tourists to reach the Northwest Angle.
At the same time, businesses up there need financial assistance, Henry said.
“There’s plenty of options,” Henry said. “That 40-mile stretch of road (through Manitoba) is desolate. I don’t know, I’m not a physician, but so far, I don’t think COVID spreads through car windows. These folks need something or they’re not going to be around for long. It’s been 13 months. It’s hard enough to run a business as an entrepreneur in good times.”
Powlowski said he would look into the border-crossing issue Colson encountered Tuesday morning.
“I’m not familiar with the problems faced by the Northwest Angle,” he said. “I certainly sympathize, and I will ask our government, both Global Affairs and Border Services, to look into the situation faced by people in your community and through my office. We can get back to you in terms of what our government can do.”
Asked about the odds that Colson would be allowed back through Manitoba to get home to the Northwest Angle later Tuesday, Stauber said he’d like to think the odds were 100%.
“But sometimes ... the common sense isn’t always there,” Stauber said. “We’ll see how that plays out. Congresswoman Fischbach and I, before we leave, you will have our direct numbers, and I want to know what happens.”
In a text message early Tuesday evening, Colson said he was allowed to enter Manitoba and return home to the Angle after a Canada Border Services Agency officer spent about 15 minutes on the phone.
At the end of Tuesday's meeting, Stauber said an interparliamentary group, of which he is a member, will remain engaged in working to resolve border crossing issues, as will Fischbach and others in Congress.
“I think we heard some really compelling things and some great suggestions, and it is a great discussion about the kind of things we can do, and we need to make sure we deal with this,” Fischbach said. “I know that there are others in Congress that have some of the same situations in their states, and so we’re joined together with them and will really work hard to do what we can to get this taken care of.”