Nfld. & Labrador

For the people of Fortune, the sealed St-Pierre border is more than bad luck

Pandemic border restrictions have severed ties — and left families stranded — between the two communities.

Families, businesses suffering from federal travel ban

There's now a much easier way to get to St-Pierre-Miquelon, but ongoing border restrictions mean nobody's allowed in or out. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Rita Thornhill watches the ferry pull into Fortune's wharf for the first time in months, the boat filled with passengers who, restricted by federal law, can't set foot on Newfoundland shore.

Her fiancé and partner of 10 years isn't on it, though, and hasn't been for over a year.

Coronavirus, still a novelty when the two last shared a hug, hadn't yet closed the crossing between Newfoundland and St-Pierre-Miquelon, a territory of France whose primary link to the greater world — hospitals, medical specialists, an international airport — lies just across the Atlantic and beyond an international border.

Thornhill's fiancé travelled to the archipelago last March to see his family. The pair figured it wouldn't take long.

"He left just for a little while, to go home and come back," Thornhill said, speaking to CBC from the town's wharf. "He hasn't been able to step over the threshold of the house since."

The territory has fought to place itself in the spotlight in recent weeks, spearheading a lobbying effort to secure an exception to Ottawa's pandemic laws prohibiting recreational entry into Canada.

On Friday, the French territory unveiled its new ferry at the Fortune wharf, which, after an expansion, can now handle the vehicles that will — one day — roll off the boat.

The showcase turned into the territory's latest effort to rack up support, with officials stealing the opportunity to repeat, by megaphone at the edge of the ferry's ramp, their desire to join the Atlantic bubble and permit travel within Canada's four most easterly provinces.

Territorial council president Bernard Briand, right, continued his lobbying efforts to restore the link between St-Pierre-Miquelon and Fortune. Border restrictions have severed ties — and left families stranded — between the two communities. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

Rosalind Boland, who runs one of Fortune's convenience stores, says in 32 years in town, she's never seen the streets so eerily calm.

"The waterfront area is extremely busy when the ferry's running," she said, with tourists popping in continuously for snacks. "People would spend money here.… It's been a big impact."

"No one else can say they have France 25 kilometres from their coast," said Danielle Ambs, who manages a tourism partnership with the archipelago. Her organization, Legendary Coasts, supports the territory's entry to the regional bubble.

"We have something very special we can market to the rest of Atlantic Canada," Ambs said.

Canada slow to embrace request

St-Pierre's push to end the travel ban started with a letter by Bernard Briand, president of the territorial council, who pleaded with Premier Andrew Furey earlier this month to support their cause.

But Furey has pushed the ball firmly into Ottawa's court, telling CBC News it's not up to him to decide border regulations. "As part of the country of France, St. Pierre et Miquelon is subject to the federal government's travel guidance," Furey previously said in an emailed statement.

Ottawa, meanwhile, has remained tight-lipped about St-Pierre-Miquelon's case.

"Protecting the health of Canadians means that any changes to border measures must be supported by strong scientific evidence," reads a statement from a federal publication relations office, sent to CBC earlier this month.

"The important perspectives of the provinces and territories, determination of the capacity of our public health and health system infrastructure, and the domestic and global epidemiological situation are also important elements considered when determining required border measures."

Family connections severed

Businesses on both sides of the boundary have taken a hit, Fortune residents say, but Thornhill feels the pain of restrictions a little keener.

"It's been a year now since I've seen him," Thornhill says of her partner, describing the forced distance between them like getting "chopped off at the knees."

"He's applied now to the consulate out there, and he got denied. It's been a very rough year."

The empty Fortune wharf has seen little traffic in the last year, affecting nearby businesses. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Thornill says her sister and nephews also live in St-Pierre-Miquelon, another instance of the deep connections between the two communities. The kids haven't seen their 88-year-old grandfather since last spring. 

"She can't get across the water to see our family, which has been quite devastating for us," she said.

The archipelago is so close, she can see the lights across the harbour at night.

"It's been quite the damper on our life here."

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