New Brunswick

2 provinces, 2 approaches for 'travel corridor' to Magdalen Islands

New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island appear to be taking different approaches to the complicated question of how people from Quebec can travel through the two provinces to reach the Magdalen Islands.

Blaine Higgs says he's open to working something out

Premier Blaine Higgs says he’s open to the idea of a “travel corridor” for Quebecers heading to the Magdalen Islands. But P.E.I. Premier Dennis King is not. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island appear to be taking different approaches to the complicated question of how people from Quebec can travel through the two provinces to reach the Magdalen Islands.

New Brunswick is letting people passing through the province make stops for food, gas or washrooms, and Premier Blaine Higgs says he's open to the idea of a "travel corridor" for Quebecers heading to the Magdalens.

"I'm sure we can work something out there," he said Thursday in an interview with CBC Radio in Quebec City.

But P.E.I. Premier Dennis King said Friday that, for now, he's sticking with his province's approach of not allowing people heading to the Magdalens to make stops.

He said his staff told the office of Quebec Premier François Legault "that we wouldn't be in a position to want to do that just yet … other than what we do for essential travel right now."

King said with tourism season approaching, "these are some of the issues we have to deal with … [but] we're comfortable right now with what we have in place and we would like to continue that for the time being." 

Higgs said at his Friday briefing that the three governments would continue to discuss the issue. "We want to be in a position where we have the same kind of rules."

Other than by air, the only way Quebecers can reach the Magdalen Islands is by driving through New Brunswick to P.E.I. and catching a ferry in the town of Souris.

2 sets of restrictions

Premier Blaine Higgs said he's sure something can be worked out for travelling to the islands. (Government of New Brunswick/Submitted)

That makes Quebec travellers subject to two other sets of provincial COVID-19 restrictions to reach another part of their own province.

It's a travel conundrum that will soon become more acute during the summer tourism season, a staple of the Magdalen Islands' economy. 

"If we are to have a tourist season this summer, will that be allowed? That's the question I'm asking," said Joel Arseneau, the member of the Quebec legislature representing the islands.

People from central regions of Quebec often face a 10-hour drive into New Brunswick, through the province, across the Confederation Bridge and then to Souris, he said. 

"The question is, can you get through New Brunswick without stopping? The answer is no. You need to gas up. You may need to get some food."

He said many travellers heading to the islands for the summer also break up the long trip with an overnight hotel stay in Moncton, and allowing that could be part of the corridor concept he's proposing.

Stops don't cover overnight stays

Joel Arseneau, the member of the Quebec legislature representing the Magdalen Islands, said he wants Quebecers to be able to travel there this summer to boost tourism. (Radio-Canada)

Higgs told CBC Radio's Quebec AM last week that some kind of special corridor "just makes sense ... and it goes in line with what we've been doing, to ensure other provinces aren't cut off for people who are passing through New Brunswick."

In fact, the province's online guidelines say people can already transit the province if they "demonstrate they are travelling through to another jurisdiction and who agree to limit stops to food, fuel and personal needs and agree to follow the guidance of the Chief Medical Officer of Health."

But while the phrase "personal needs" includes bathroom breaks, it does not cover overnight hotel stops, said Department of Public Safety spokesperson Shawn Berry.

Higgs said the idea from the beginning, coordinated with Prince Edward Island, was to allow "a straight run" to the Magdalens without any overnight stops. 

In Prince Edward Island, at least one grocery store owner near the Souris ferry terminal is refusing to let out-of-province travellers into his store.

Higgs did not answer a question at Friday's briefing about whether store owners in New Brunswick can or should be able to choose to refuse to serve non-New Brunswickers.

An official with Couche-Tard, the company operating some Irving Big Stop and Circle K stations along the Trans-Canada Highway in New Brunswick, said it is not restricting out-of-province travellers from entering their stations.

But non-New Brunswick drivers are being asked to pay for their gas at the pumps rather than go inside. 

Berry said those policies are up to the store owners as long as they are following all Public Health rules, such as physical distancing requirements.

Shifting restrictions

P.E.I. Premier Dennis King said he's sticking with his province's approach of not allowing people heading to the Magdalens to make stops. (Ken Linton/CBC)

Quebec's conundrum with the Magdalen Islands is also complicated by its own shifting COVID-19 precautions.

When the pandemic began, the province restricted internal travel between regions within Quebec. Only residents of the Magdalen Islands and people transporting essential goods were allowed to travel there and they needed permission from the Quebec government.

That permission was enough to let them transit through New Brunswick and PEI, Arseneau said.

With those internal restrictions being lifted Monday, cottage owners will be added to the list of those allowed to travel to the island, but they'll now be subject to New Brunswick and P.E.I. border restrictions.

Arseneau said his understanding is they'll apply to P.E.I. for permission and that permission will also be respected by New Brunswick. 

He said the situation could need to change yet again next month, when tourism season begins in earnest in the Magdalen Islands and more Quebecers will be looking to get there for vacations. 

At that point a much larger volume of people will need to know if they can stop in New Brunswick and P.E.I. while en route, he said. "That's what I think the two governments should get straight."

Higgs said Friday allowing Quebecers to pass through en route to the Magdalen Islands may raise the issue of whether Quebecers with cottages in New Brunswick should be let in.

But he said he doesn't foresee the New Brunswick-Quebec border opening to regular travel before the end of the summer. 

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