Border closure continues to be a challenge for Indigenous people, businesses, residents

By: - October 11, 2021 5:55 am
A view of the highway during foliage season

It’s leaf-peeping season in New Hampshire, but you’re unlikely to see Canadian drivers on Interstate 89 or any other New Hampshire roads as the border remains closed to Canadian citizens. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

The Canadian border has been open to vaccinated citizens of the United States since early August, but the United States has yet to reciprocate the policy. Instead, each month the Biden administration has extended the closure – as well as the closure of the southern border – to the confusion and dismay of some New Hampshire residents.

The policy has not only affected businesses but has also kept some families who live on both sides of the border apart. And especially for Indigenous people in the region, the closures stemming from the pandemic have made the challenges of imposed colonial borders much more acute.

That’s been the case for Alexander Cotnoir, a citizen of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Tribe. Cotnoir’s family straddles the border, but because of the closure he hasn’t been able to see family in Drummondville and Trois Rivières, Quebec, since 2019. Cotnoir used to go fishing north of the border or occasionally travel there to get groceries, but no longer.

Abenaki people would traditionally move freely around New Hampshire, Vermont, and parts of Maine and Quebec, Cotnoir said – but the pandemic has added new restrictions on top of borders that already feel arbitrary for many Indigenous people.

Indigenous people who were born in Canada and can prove they have “50 percent aboriginal blood,” are still able to cross the border in spite of the pandemic. But Cotnoir said even his family members born in Canada haven’t pursued the paperwork-intensive option.

For non-Indigenous residents, the border closure has brought other changes when it comes to life along New Hampshire’s northern border. Richard Lapoint is a selectman in New Hampshire’s northernmost town of Pittsburg, the only New Hampshire municipality bordering Canada. Lapoint used to bring his black Labrador retriever across the border to go to the vet, which he said was common practice in town before the pandemic.

Since the border closed, he hasn’t been able to do that, and vets on the New Hampshire side of the border haven’t been accepting new patients. While Lapoint, who is vaccinated, could cross the border now, he hasn’t tried it yet, afraid it will be a paperwork-laden hassle. Before the pandemic, crossing the border was just a part of his normal routine.

“Obviously, we’d like to get the border back open the way it used to be,” he said.

But he doesn’t think Pittsburg has been missing out on much in terms of tourism due to the closure. Lapoint said Canadian tourists often pass through Pittsburgh to New Hampshire’s beaches.  

The business community in the Seacoast region is feeling the crunch, according to John Nyhan, president of the Hampton Area Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s very clear that the coast here, they lost about 20 percent of their summer revenue because of the lack of Canadian visitors,” he said. And Nyhan estimated that in the Hampton area about 80 percent of the business community is made up of small businesses.

“I think it’s a shame that it continues to be delayed because it really now has impacted not only our summer tourism, but now, beautiful New England foliage,” Nyhan said.

For Nyhan, what’s most frustrating about the closure is not getting a clear answer about why the land border remains closed when Canadian tourists are able to enter by flying. In Canada, over 70 percent of the population is vaccinated, and in Quebec, that percentage is even higher, at 74 percent. That’s higher than New Hampshire’s rate of fully vaccinated individuals, which is currently 54.5 percent. And, Nyhan said, it’s also been unclear who is responsible for ultimately making the decision to reopen.

“It’s difficult to be optimistic when you don’t know why the decisions are being made and who is making the decisions,” Nyhan said.

On a statewide level, it’s too soon to tell just what the impact of the Canadian border closure on tourism has been, according to state Travel and Tourism Director Lori Harnois. But anecdotally, the state has been hearing from those in the tourism industry who have reported a strong summer with above normal bookings, a trend that some are expecting to continue through the fall.

The most recent data about visitors coming from Canada is from 2017, when 344,000 Canadians came to visit New Hampshire, staying for an average of 2.7 nights and spending around $89.7 million. They account for 80 percent of New Hampshire’s international travel, and a little over a quarter of international spending in the state.

Karmen Gifford, president of the Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce, said she has heard from state officials that tourism numbers were stronger than in 2019, pre-pandemic, which would mean there’s been a demographic shift in who is coming to visit the state.

That, in turn, has put pressure on campgrounds and trailheads that are continuing to see higher than usual traffic and trash, Gifford said, especially as people turn to the outdoors for COVID-friendly activities. Another result has been a shortage of rental cars.

Still, Gifford said, uncertainty about when the border will reopen to Canadians is a challenge for small businesses that have forged relationships with people who used to visit each year.

The question remains: “What will happen after Oct. 31, you know, with the Canadian border? A lot of people around here, I think, watch it month to month,” Gifford said.

The border closure order from the federal government is set to expire Oct. 21, unless another month-long order is issued. The September order was released on the 20th, the day before it was set to expire. 

Craig Clemmer, director of marketing at the Omni Mount Washington Resort, agreed that while they’re staying busy, there’s been a change in where the visitors are coming from. More Americans from out of state are traveling here and more than making up for the losses resulting from the border closure.

“We’ve been pretty blessed with relatively robust business levels,” Clemmer said. “It doesn’t mean we don’t want some normalcy back in our lives.”

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.

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