British Columbia

Alaskan sisters beg Canada to let them go to school in B.C.

Pandemic restrictions have closed the border between two remote communities in B.C. and Alaska, meaning children in Alaska who were supposed to attend school in B.C. are stuck at home. They and their parents are asking Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to allow them to form a cross-border bubble.

Bored and cut off from the classroom, students ask public safety minister to allow cross-border bubble

Ellie Korpela, 8, sits near a glacier not far from her home in Hyder, Alaska. She and her sister want to attend school in Stewart, B.C., but border restrictions due to the pandemic have left them stuck at home. (Submitted by Nick Korpela)

It's back to school this week for students in Stewart, B.C., but five Alaskan children who were set to join them this year are stuck at home after pandemic restrictions have essentially closed the border between two remote cross-border communities that sit side by side and usually intermingle.

Right now, people are only allowed to cross the border between Hyder, Alaska and Stewart, B.C., for essential travel or they must abide by two-week quarantine requirements.

For two American sisters that means no school as the only one in Hyder just shut down due to low enrolment.

So, Hilma and Ellie Korpela — though sad to lose their favourite teacher Ms. Tiffany — were all set to start classes at a new school on Sept. 10 just across the border in Stewart, B.C.

Bear Valley School is the only school near them, and the Americans' attendance had been approved by Coast Mountains School Board District 82.

'I just want to go to school, I've been so bored'

The girls say they were looking forward to meeting their new teacher.

"That's the one thing that I want most, besides the border being opened," said eight-year-old Ellie Korpela.

But when their B.C. friends headed off to class, they couldn't because of COVID-19 border rules in place since March 21. Any American who crosses into Stewart, B.C., must self-isolate for 14 days, which precludes the sisters from joining their Canadian classmates.

The pandemic restrictions have caused a myriad of problems for the two towns where people often own land or work on either side. Only three teenagers live in Hyder, so many were cut off from friends in Stewart.

"I feel sad I can't join [my friends]. I just want to go to school. I've been so bored," said 10-year-old Hilma Korpela.

Hilma Korpela, 10, lives in Hyder, Alaska, but was slated to start Grade 5 in Stewart, B.C., this week with her friends. COVID-19 changed that. (Submitted by Nick Korpela)

Their father, Nick Korpela, works in Canada on a work permit and pays Canadian taxes. He's in the midst of trying to buy a house in Stewart and filed permanent residency applications to move the family there, but the pandemic has also stalled this process.

He said it's difficult to see his vibrant daughters so disappointed and unable to start Grade 3 and Grade 5.

"Yeah, it's a bummer," said Hilma, who misses playing hockey and hanging out with her friends. She said it's been a struggle during the lockdown with so few children on the Hyder side of the border.

She spends a lot of time with her younger sister who loves reading and doing art and woodwork. The pair are close, but also very different and they miss their respective friends.

"I'm trying not to get on Ellie's bad side," said Hilma. "We are trying not to get too angry with each other."

Committee proposes cross-border bubble

A group of adults rallied Friday to try to press Canada to let the Alaskan students join their classmates.

They've been pushing for months to get Canadian Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to allow some sort of cross-border "bubble" so the two communities can interact as normal during the pandemic.

This satellite image shows the proximity of Hyder, Alaska, bottom left, to Stewart, B.C. (Google Maps)

 "Doesn't Mr. Blair know we're all alone here?" asked Hilma.

The Hyder-Stewart action committee has proposed a joint partnership between the two towns that they call the Bear Bubble, which would allow residents to cross the Stewart point of entry without limits.

Decisions 'not been taken lightly'

The arrangement has been endorsed by Canadian MPs Taylor Bachrach and Jack Harris, Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski, Governor Mike Dunleavy and Alaska State Legislature Representative Dan Ortiz. 

A group of people who live in the tiny communities of Hyder, Alaska, and Stewart, B.C., rallied Sept. 11 to urge Canada's public safety minister to allow Alaskan children to attend the only school in the area, which is located in British Columbia. (Carly Ackerman/Hyder AK & Stewart BC Covid Action committee)

"Five children from Hyder were taught a harsh life lesson in disappointment and bureaucracy," the committee members wrote in a Thursday news release. 

"The COVID-19 border restrictions that have locked down residents of Hyder for 173 days don't allow for children to cross the border into Stewart for school, which the Government of Canada has not deemed an essential reason for travel."

Cross-border students were exempted from quarantine requirements earlier this year, but that changed on Aug. 7. Since then even Canadian students crossing for studies must abide the 14-day self-isolation requirements, according to a spokesperson for Blair. 

"We brought forward significant restrictions at our borders to flatten the curve and prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Canada. These decisions have not been taken lightly but they are necessary to keep Canadians safe," the spokesperson said in an email. 

"We will continue to evaluate the best public health information available to us to make a decision on when and how to reopen our border. This decision will be made in Canada, with the best interest of Canadians as our top priority."


Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist.


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