British Columbia

Northern B.C. border town pushes for international bubble with Alaskan neighbours

Residents of a small B.C. border town want to be recognized, along with their Alaskan neighbours, as an "integrated trans-border community" so they can travel freely from one side of the border to the other.

People in Stewart, B.C., want to open up local travel to and from Hyder, Alaska without restrictions

Residents of Hyder, Alaska, a town of about 80 people in southeastern Alaska, rely on a small road linking their town to Stewart, B.C., for emergency medical services and mainland road access. (Tjipke de Vries/Wikipedia)

Residents of a small B.C. border town want permission to share a bubble with their Alaskan neighbours during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stewart, B.C., with a population of about 400 people, acts as a service centre for Hyder, Alaska, which has a population of about 80. It is located at the southern end of the Alaskan panhandle of the Canada-U.S. border, which has been closed to non-essential travel since March 21.

"When the restrictions went into place in March, nobody thought that four-plus months later, here we would be with the same restrictions," said Stewart Mayor Gina McKay who, at the outset of the pandemic, promised to support the people of Hyder.

"They've essentially been stuck over there, [and] it's really taking a toll on their community."

Hyder is not connected to other parts of Alaska by road. The border is monitored by Canadian agents, with no U.S. agents on site.

Carly Ackerman, a dual citizen who lives in Stewart, said the CBSA is ensuring people who cross from Hyder into Stewart are following all the rules, including the mandatory 14-day quarantine. 

Ackerman said she recently crossed over from her home in Stewart to a property she owns in Hyder. Upon returning to Stewart she was told to quarantine for 14 days, in compliance with national guidelines.

"They checked up on me twice to make sure I was isolating in place," she said. "They're following the rules."

Hyder residents, Ackerman​​​​​​​ said, are being limited to short trips into Stewart for supplies and essentials, and are only allowed to visit once every seven days — making it difficult to go about their daily lives.

"We have Hyderites who are not being permitted to cross the border to get firewood," she said. "We have people in Hyder who rely on family to come across the border to help them with their gardens, help them with their fishing and get things ready to fill their freezers and storage pantries for the long winter ahead." 

According to the Canada Border Services Agency, "healthy, non-symptomatic individuals for whom crossing the border on a day-to-day basis is essential for work and daily life, are still permitted to cross the border."

In an email to CBC, the CBSA said crossing the border to get groceries, medication or fuel would be an example of essential travel, but declined to comment on the specifics of the Hyder situation.

Ackerman​​​​​​​ has helped create a cross-border committee petitioning for these limitations to be lifted for locals wanting to travel between Hyder and Stewart, arguing they should be recognized as "integrated trans-border communities." 

To underline the point, members are posting photos of gatherings and get-togethers from years past under the title "two countries, one community."

B.C.'s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry expressed support for the proposal on Tuesday when asked about it, but she emphasized it would ultimately be a federal decision.

"I think it sounds like a reasonable thing," she said. "But this is something that needs to be taken up with the federal government."

Residents of Hyder, Alaska and Stewart, B.C. are shown in 2015 protesting a proposed reduction of border hours. Today, residents are petitioning to allow unrestricted crossings for locals during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Wes Loe/Hyder AK & Stewart BC COVID-19 Action Committee)

Henry said her one concern is the recent increase in cases of COVID-19 from Alaska, but Ackerman​​​​​​​ pointed out that Hyder itself is isolated from the rest of the state and therefore unlikely to be impacted.

"We're asking for a small group of people who live together in a remote place to be able to do their everyday function of life."

Mayor McKay said the same, pointing out the only way for people in Hyder to get anywhere else in Alaska is by crossing through Stewart.

"They haven't gone anywhere, they haven't left, they can't travel anywhere, even in their own state," she said. "We are all in the same bubble."

Ackerman​​​​​​​ said the petition asking for an international border bubble to be allowed has been sent to Canada's minister of public safety Bill Blair, and she's hoping for a prompt response. 

"I'm optimistic that when we find that right person and get them to look at this little community, how remote we are, how unlikely we are to transmit COVID to other Canadians from here, I think it will be easier to understand."

With files from Matt Allen and Betsy Trumpener


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