Thunder Bay

'Wild to see' lineup of cars from Minnesota to Canadian border stretches for hours

U.S. residents were waiting up to seven hours to cross the Canadian border from International Falls, Minn., on Monday, the first day of Ottawa's easing of travel restrictions for fully vaccinated people from the U.S.

Wait times from International Falls to Fort Frances, Ont., estimated at up to 7 hours

A screenshot from Tricia Heibel's video shows long lines from International Falls in Minnesota to get into Fort Frances, Ont., on Monday, when Canada eased travel restrictions for people from the U.S. who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. (Supplied by Tricia Heibel)

Wait times at border crossings were expected when Canada's eased restrictions for fully vaccinated people from the U.S. kicked in Monday, but for those heading to Fort Frances, Ont., from International Falls, Minn., they were around seven hours and growing.

As of Monday, non-essential travellers from the U.S. who are fully vaccinated are allowed into Canada, as long as it's been at least two weeks since their second dose of a Health Canada-approved vaccine, and they have a negative COVID-19 test.

Stories of people seeing family and loved ones for the first time in months were reported in other cities, including at the Michigan-Ontario border, where one couple who hadn't seen each other much through most of their two-year engagement reunited in Sarnia.

Tricia Heibel, president of the International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce and a resident of Ranier, Minn., said it was "wild to see" the line from International Falls to Fort Frances.

Before COVID-19, "we would have lineups happen, sometimes on, like a Thursday or Friday, for people crossing over into Saturday or Sunday travel. You know, little bits of spikes every once a while," said Heibel.

"They would get a little bit longer, but they've traditionally moved a lot faster than they are today with the new crossing requirements. I've not seen them this long before."

WATCH | Hours-long lineup from International Falls, Minn., to Fort Frances, Ont.:

Shawn Hoag, regional director general for northern Ontario region at Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), said there's a lot of pent-up demand and excitement to get across the border.

Hoag said it can take up to three to five minutes to check each vehicle, depending on how prepared the travellers are. He said that for the Fort Frances border, they were anticipating a surge due to cottagers, landowners and resort-goers.

"We didn't expect this much, but a lot of it is also where Fort Frances is because it's a one-lane bridge coming across the river, and although it breaks out to four lanes at the port of entry, the one lane across really channels the traffic."

Blocks and blocks of cars

The day before, Heibel said, she saw social media posts from people about a lineup starting between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. ET, and she even drove to the area to take some video, but it didn't turn out.

She figured the line would still be there the next morning, and it was.

Heibel was heading into work for a meeting at around 7:30 a.m. when she used her cellphone to record a three-minute video of Americans waiting patiently for their chance to get into Canada.

"I had my phone ready in my car, as I knew I was going to pass it between my home and my office ... and  was ready to document what it was, and it did not disappoint."

Heibel said the video doesn't show the complete lineup, and if she were able to keep going to the border, it would have been another couple of blocks of cars. She estimates some 200 vehicles were in line.

Heibel, president of the International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce and a resident of Ranier, Minn., recorded video of the long border lineup on her way to work. (Supplied by Tricia Heibel)

"I kind of had no idea that it could get as lengthy as it is today in the morning, and it definitely delivered," said Heibel.

Heibel said she had a chat with a couple outside her office when she got there. They told her they had been in line to cross since 3 a.m. and had a couple more hours left to wait.

"People were still in good spirits. I think on some level they anticipated a wait. I don't know if anybody really thought it would be this level of wait, and it's worth it to them."

Heibel said she's grateful Canada is reopening and wishes it could be reciprocated.

"I've kind of joked and said, 'I don't know how Canadians are feeling about this.' I'm sure it is ... met with mixed reaction from some, but ultimately I would say I hope Canada is feeling the love because people are really missing you and really wanting to come back in."

Hoag said it's possible for travellers to head to the Rainy River border, where wait times are under an hour.

"Although it might be a little bit out of the way for people, they may find that's actually faster in the long run."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jasmine Kabatay is an Anishinaabe freelance journalist from Seine River First Nation in northwestern Ontario. She is based in Toronto and has written for the Toronto Star, VICE News, and was a national columnist for Metro News (now StarMetro.)

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