(CNN) – Every evening, Point Roberts residents Steve Work and Shauna Sylvester go for a walk. Work strolls the sandy beaches that surround the community and says it often feels like the American-Canadian couple has the eight-mile coast to themselves.
This is because many of the homes in their neighborhood are empty – the owners are absent because months of coronavirus travel restrictions have made it impossible for them to live in Point Roberts.
Point Roberts is an 8 km² outpost separated from the rest of Whatcom County and Washington State by 25 miles of British Columbia and two border crossings. Restrictions have made it impossible for US citizens to get to the island.
Courtesy Diane Selkirk
“It’s like an idyllic island;” says Work of Point Roberts, “except that it was never set up as an island.”
Point Roberts is an 8 km² outpost separated from the rest of Whatcom County, Washington State and the United States by 25 miles of British Columbia and two border crossings. These boundaries never mattered as Point Roberts was incorporated into the nearby town of Tsawwassen in Canada. Work says, “The border felt transparent. It was easy to come and go.”
When Covid-19 cases began to rise in the US and grew more slowly in Canada, the two countries agreed on border restrictions.
A borderline problem
The closure, which began March 21 and renewed monthly, resulted in a dramatic decrease in traffic between the two countries, although key workers – such as truck drivers and health professionals – could still cross.
“This is a beautiful place with a strong community, but we’re isolated from almost everything,” says Work, who, like most residents, is keen that both governments find a solution that will help residents get in and out of Point Roberts light.
The goal would be to get a special exemption for entering Canada to get supplies and visit family, or to return to Washington State via the Peace Arch border crossing.
Point Roberts is just one of many close-knit cross-border communities along the US-Canada border that have been cut off since the Covid-19 travel restrictions were introduced.
But unlike more typical border towns, which are separate from their Canadian counterparts but still connected to their larger county and state, Point Roberts is what geographers call a Pene enclave. A piece of land that can only be reached by traveling through a foreign area. Other Pene enclaves along the border are Hyder, Alaska; the northwest corner in Lake of the Woods, Minnesota; and Campobello Island, New Brunswick.)
The Hyder, Alaska community experienced a decline in population and economic activity due to restrictions.
In normal times, that doesn’t really matter. Point Roberts developed a unique hybrid identity where the residents were likely as Canadian as they were American. In the enclave, speed signs were in US miles per hour, but gasoline prices were Canadian dollars per liter.
Daily life was usually fluid across the border – residents worked, went shopping, relaxed, went to school or, on the Canadian side, received medical care.
Covid-19 stopped all of that.
Empty pene enclaves
Pene enclaves like Point Roberts and Hyder have often emerged from nation-building negotiations. In the case of Point Roberts, the isthmus was once a popular summer camp for indigenous people from the Cowichan, Lummi, Saanich and Semiahmoo nations.
When the US-Canada border was set at latitude 49 in 1846, it crossed the Tsawwassen Peninsula, dangling a chunk of the United States on the ground.
Point Roberts is what geographers call a Pene enclave. A piece of land that can only be reached by traveling through a foreign area.
Courtesy Diane Selkirk
Instead of being a mapping supervisor, this line was actually strategic. It granted the United States military support as well as valuable fishing and crab rights. For decades, the enclave was a no man’s land occupied by “smugglers and otherwise lawless men” (according to one report).
That changed when the US government evacuated the population in 1892 and made way for settlers in 1908.
Point Roberts never became what you would call busy. The quiet little community with its beaches and wooded landscape attracted summer vacationers and 1,191 permanent residents (around 4,500 in summer) who enjoy the relaxed atmosphere.
Since the border was closed, the population is estimated to have dropped to 800 to 900 people, and companies have cut their hours or lowered shutters by around 80%.
Similarly, Hyder parish has seen a decline in population and economic activity. The easternmost city in Alaska, cut off from the rest of the state by vast wilderness and mountains, relies on its Canadian counterpart Stewart, British Columbia, for fuel, food, and other vital necessities.
Canada’s pandemic restrictions on border crossings have left the Point Roberts community largely empty.
Ruth Fremson / The New York Times / Redux
Located at the very end of BC Highway 37A, Hyder is the only town Alaskan city drivers can reach without taking the Alaska Highway. The community typically sees up to 100,000 tourists a year, thanks to events like the annual Hyder Seek gathering of motorcyclists.
“Before Covid-19, the border didn’t seem to matter much. Many of us walked back and forth two or three times a day, moving smoothly between residences depending on the season,” says Jennifer Bunn, Hyder resident and co-chair of Hyder AK & Stewart BC Covid-19 Action Committee.
Now the 63 residents of Hyder cannot travel to Stewart and the 425 Stewartites are not allowed to visit Hyder. Currently, one member of each Hyder household is identified as a “Designated Buyer” and is given a single trip each week for fuel and groceries. Cross-border socializing, recreation or school attendance are not permitted.
Due to border restrictions, school children in Hyder, Alaska were unable to reach their school in Stewart, British Columbia.
Courtesy Jennifer Bunn
Bunn hopes officials will recognize the interdependence of the two communities and allow them to form a bubble before the winter strikes. “Due to border restrictions, Hyder residents in Stewart have been unable to collect firewood and I’m not sure how many they will heat. We’re not emotionally or physically prepared for winter this winter.”
At Point Roberts, Fire Chief Christopher Carleton also hopes lawmakers on both sides of the border will realize how unique the Pene enclaves are. While banning unnecessary travel across the land border makes sense to him, he points out that his community suffers from unique difficulties, such as when families choose to go so their children can go to school.
“Common Sense Solutions”
Campobello Island in New Brunswick is another Pene enclave. In this case, the only land route is through the United States.
This along with US visitors abusing the Alaska Gap – a provision that allows Americans to drive through Canada to get to and from Alaska by taking the shortest possible route, stopping only for the essentials, and avoiding tourist attractions – Has made Canadian officials reluctant to make changes to already complex border restrictions.
However, Bunn and Carleton point out that neither community has had a single case of Covid-19 and that their very unusual circumstances should call them into question for sensible solutions.
The Canadian-American border will remain closed to all but essential travel until at least October 21.
However, newly announced rules on family reunification, compassionate entry, and international student entry into Canada, as well as increased compliance and enforcement efforts, suggest the border will remain closed indefinitely.