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Dokken: It's time to lift the cloud of uncertainty on the U.S.-Canada border

There’s absolutely no reason nonessential U.S. travelers seeking to reach a U.S. destination shouldn’t be able to drive the 40 or so miles of road through Manitoba to reach the Northwest Angle.

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Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

We’re not out of the COVID woods yet, but for the first time in a long time, I find myself looking toward the future with a sense of optimism and anticipation instead of pessimism and uncertainty.

The day is coming – at least the signs are pointing in that direction – when this life-altering event all of us have endured for the past year and counting will be in the rearview mirror and we can get back to some semblance of normalcy.

My optimism, unfortunately, stops at the U.S.-Canada border, and I have nothing on which to base this except a gut feeling. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see the border reopening to nonessential travel in time to salvage the summer tourism season for Canadian resorts and outfitters, many of which rely almost exclusively on U.S. clientele.

RELATED STORIES:

  • A tale of two lakes: Tourism flourishes on south shore of Lake of the Woods while Northwest Angle struggles with border closure during the COVID-19 pandemic Thanks to the ongoing U.S.-Canada border closure to nonessential travel, getting to the Northwest Angle by road – which requires traveling about 40 miles through Manitoba – hasn’t been an option for anyone but permanent residents and essential workers since March.
  • On the border: Struggles, successes in northern Minnesota come to the forefront The Herald's three-part "On the border" video documentary is online now.
  • Glad You Asked: Why is the Northwest Angle in the United States? It's the result of a long-ago mapmaking error.

Prospects for the border reopening remain uncertain, clouded by Canada’s policy of extending the border closure for one month at a time, which has been the case since March. To say that creates planning difficulties for tourism and other businesses that depend on the border being open would be an understatement.
Case in point: Some friends and I had to reschedule a much-anticipated fly-in fishing trip last summer to a remote lake in northwestern Ontario because of the border closure. That was completely understandable and, truth be told, I wouldn’t have been comfortable traveling, even with friends, because testing at the time wasn’t nearly as available as it is now.

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Our trip remains on the books for this July, but given the uncertainty of the border situation, three of us have already made alternate plans for those dates to a wilderness destination that doesn’t require crossing the border.

With COVID numbers trending in the right direction and more vaccines getting into the arms of people who want them, leaders in both countries should start laying out a strategy for reopening the border instead of extending the closure one month at a time and leaving everyone who’s affected by the policy in the dark.

There needs to be an end point, or at least a strategy for what that end point will look like, whether it be proof of vaccinations, proof of negative test results or something else.

At the very least, it’s time for the Canadian government to lift the transit restrictions on people who want to drive to the Northwest Angle, that small chunk of Minnesota surrounded on three sides by Canada and accessible from the U.S. only by crossing some 40 miles of Lake of the Woods.

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Driving to the Northwest Angle this winter requires traveling an ice road that crosses 22 miles of Lake of the Woods and 8 miles of land along the U.S.-Canada border. That option will disappear within weeks as temperatures warm and road conditions deteriorate. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

There’s absolutely no reason nonessential U.S. travelers seeking to reach a U.S. destination shouldn’t be able to drive the 40 or so miles of road through Manitoba to reach the Northwest Angle. The area is sparsely populated, the trip could be made without driving through a single community by taking a backroad that bypasses Sprague, Man. – the only town between the border and the Angle – and Canada could impose harsh penalties on anyone caught beyond the road to the Angle.

As one frustrated cabin owner told me last spring: “Let the people go and make it illegal to stop. If you stop, you’re subject to arrest. We’re not going to hurt Canada, we’re not going to hurt the people. The coronavirus isn’t going to fly out the window when you’re driving through.”

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The problem is the Northwest Angle, because of its unique geographical situation, has never fit any regulations that have applied to national borders.

Resorts and businesses at the Angle this winter had to develop an ice road crossing 22 miles of Lake of the Woods and 8 miles of land along the U.S.-Canada border to salvage their winter season after a disastrous summer. The winter road has worked well, for the most part, but once the ice begins to melt and road conditions deteriorate, businesses up there will be back where they started: cut off from their own country and the tourists who want to drive there.

It shouldn’t be that way.

Three members of Minnesota’s Republican congressional delegation – Reps. Michelle Fischbach, Pete Stauber and Tom Emmer – said as much earlier this week in a letter to President Biden, written in advance of the president’s Tuesday virtual meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“With widespread COVID treatment options and vaccine deployment well underway, we believe it is time to safely reopen the route to the Angle, a 40-mile road through a remote and low-populated area, to provide a lifeline to its struggling businesses,” the letter states. “There are many potential solutions, namely a trade corridor that would allow all economic activity to resume on the Angle safely and with accountability. As we approach a full year with a closed northern border, it is critical to this remote community that a solution is found before access points are once again closed off for tourists.”

They’re absolutely right. But it's the Canadians who need to be convinced to heed their logic.

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Even if the Canadian border remains closed for months to come – which is my prediction – the two countries should be able to come up with a way for U.S. tourists and cabin owners to reach their own country.

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Brad Dokken

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Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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