In the heart of this strange, sad holiday season, businesses and families continue to navigate the ongoing border closure between Vermont and Canada. So how are they doing?
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Kingston, Ontario resident Gabrielle Coburn recently posed this question to VPR’s people-powered journalism project, Brave Little State: “What effect has the border with Canada being closed had on Vermont and its citizens?”
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Gabrielle Coburn has a lot of family in the Northeast Kingdom. Newport, North Troy.
“I have my mom and dad, and I have an aunt, I have a cousin, I have multiple cousins in that area,” she says. “My grandfather.”
Gabrielle lives in Kingston, Ontario. She has dual citizenship: Her dad is American, and her mom is Canadian. And then *she* ended up marrying a Canadian.
“It just made more sense for us to live in Canada,” she says. “So we ended up here.”
Her brother also married a Canadian — they live in the NEK. (I’m not expecting you to keep track of all this. But the gist is that this is a family of blended citizenship.)
“Yeah, we border-hop, apparently, in our family,” Gabrielle says.
At least, they used to. Until the pandemic shut down non-essential travel between the U.S. and Canada. The border’s been restricted since March, and any supposed reopening keeps getting pushed back. The latest extension of the border closure to non-essential travel will last until at least Dec. 21.
Of course, people have gotten creative. Gabrielle says she’s seen photos of families gathering on either side of the border between Derby Line and Stanstead, outside the public library.
“They’re just sitting outside of it,” she says. “You can’t touch, you can’t give a gift, you just sit there and talk.”
But that doesn’t work for Gabrielle. She lives too far away, in Ontario. And even if she did travel to the border...
“If I brought my kids to see my parents, and they were on the other side, there’s no way I could keep my kids away from, like, going to give grandma and grandpa a big hug,” Gabrielle says. “So that’d be torture for them.”
She was able to bring her kids to Vermont once this summer, to meet their new cousin. But even that was hard. Since her husband’s not a U.S. citizen, he couldn’t come. She and her kids had to quarantine for two weeks when they got home. And Canada’s quarantine rules are just a *tad* stricter than America’s. If you don’t follow them, you could face a fine of up to $750,000 and up to six months in prison.
“The way things are going now, it probably will be another year before I see my family again,” Gabrielle says.
So for now, it’s the all-too-familiar routine of phone calls and video chats.
“It’s frustrating,” Gabrielle says. “It’s very reasonable to ask us to stay home, ‘cause I would feel awful if I came just to visit and got somebody sick. But it’s still pretty frustrating.”
And isolating. Gabrielle got in touch with us to see if we could find out how other cross-border families are coping.
“Like, it’d just be nice to know I’m not the only one,” she says. “I know I’m not the only one, but it’s — I don’t know anyone else around here, where I am, in Kingston, Ontario, that’s dual and from Vermont and has family on the other side.”
BLS question-askers have a special knack for asking two-part questions. In addition to hearing personal stories, Gabrielle also wants to know how her favorite Northeast Kingdom shops and restaurants are faring.
“So I’m just wondering how it’s affecting, like, the economy, with the lack of business from Canada,” she says.
We’re gonna start with the economic impacts of the border closure. There were a few Newport businesses in particular that Gabrielle was curious about.
Lapierre’s Home Decorating:
“In all honesty, I really can’t say it affected our business at all,” says co-owner Randy Davis. “I really don’t depend on very much Canadian traffic.”
And The Pick & Shovel, which is a kind of hardware and garden store on steroids:
“I would say that because of all the influx of out-of-state traffic we had over the summer, with a lot of people relocating to our area up here in the Kingdom, you really couldn’t tell this year that the Canadian traffic was missing,” says co-owner Chris Hamblett.
He adds that the business The Pick & Shovel might have lost from Canadians was replaced by new people moving in from other states in the U.S.
“Probably five-fold,” Chris says. “We’re hoping that all the people who moved up here from down-country are now gonna be in need of winter stuff.”
Lucky for Chris Hamblett and Randy Davis, their stores are the exact kinds of places that are doing well in the pandemic, with so many people channeling their extra money and time into house projects.
As for businesses that cater more to tourists? It’s harder to find a good-news story.
I gave a call to Derby Line Village Inn, but they didn’t want to talk. The East Side Restaurant, which gets a lot of business from people coming off Lake Memphremagog, didn’t respond to multiple voicemails.
In November, Jay Peak’s president and general manager Steve Wright came on VPR’s show Vermont Edition, and said this:
“During the winter, we rely on about 50% of our total customer base comes from Canada,” he said. “It’s about 70% in the summer, and we felt that with respect to the golf season. But yeah, half of our guests aren’t going to physically be able to get here because of the federal closing.”
Eleanor Leger is the founder and CEO of Eden Specialty Ciders, which has a tasting bar in Newport:
“The ski traffic is just not gonna be around, and that was pretty much the only thing that provides us with, you know, people who are interested in tasting high-end cider in the wintertime,” she says. “So yeah, it’s too bad.”
She adds her Canadian business had actually been declining before the pandemic, due to a stronger U.S. dollar, and in recent years, a “tougher” border:
“‘Cause of immigration policy... And then having it closed for COVID it’s just totally — it’s sort of the final nail in the coffin, perhaps since at this point traffic is zero.”
But the company does most of its business far beyond Newport, through distributors and online sales. And Eleanor Leger says she has no plans to close their tasting bar in downtown Newport.
So, big picture?
Bruce James is the president of Vermont’s North Country Chamber of Commerce, in Newport, and he says the border is “definitely” affecting business on the U.S. side. Ultimately, he says, there are two types of commerce that are suffering right now.
“In the smaller towns, just across the border, the neighbors there come to Newport/Derby area and buy staples — they shop for groceries, get gasoline, things like that,” Bruce says. “But the bigger picture is what we’re really missing — we’re missing the 100,000 to 150,000 people that live a half hour to 45 minutes away from the border in Sherbrooke and the Eastern Townships.”
Special events in all seasons, including the Memphremagog Winter Swimming Festival, draw thousands of Canadians who eat out and go shopping. Bruce James doesn’t have an estimate for how much revenue will have been lost by the time this is over.
“It’s untold,” he says. “Tourism is like the hotel business. Every night goes by that a room is empty, you can never get it back. It’s not like a hardware store where they have a bin of 9-penny nails, if you don’t buy them Tuesday, you come in and buy them Wednesday. Once these tourism dollars are missed, they can’t come back. So all we can hope for, and what we’re all actually doing right now, is we’re preparing to entice and draw our visitors across the border once the border opens up and once COVID is at bay.”
Moving now from the economic to the personal. As we often do, we put a call out for folks to add their voices to this episode. And we heard from lots of people about how the border closure is affecting them.
Some of you had a very specific type of anguish:
Doug Shane of Vershire: “I can’t go to Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal for their corned beef medium plate special! This is terrible.”
Tom Powell of South Burlington: “One of the things I most dearly miss about Montreal is going to Lester’s Deli and Market up in the Outremont section of Montreal. It is the most delightful place for smoked meat in Montreal, and they have a sandwich there which is, ah, it can’t be any better. I miss it so much.”
But most of what we heard from you wasn’t about smoked meat. It was about relationships.
“I especially hope to see my mother-in-law after this coronavirus thing is over,” says Richmond resident Darcy Buret. “She’s 77, and I’d like to spend time again with her.”
Darcy’s husband’s family are all in Montreal.
“We miss seeing our family,” she said. “The nephew and nieces are growing up and changing, and I’d like to be a part of their lives. We’ve given up thinking that the border might reopen, since each date that was a month away was pushed back by another month.”
We heard this a lot, that the extension of the closure, month after month, has really worn on people.
“It’s just a little heartbreaking, it's like, I keep telling myself not to get my hopes up,” says Bess Onegow of Williston. “Because I think that the border should stay closed right now.”
We’ll hear more from Bess later. Here’s Cameron Bradley, of Burlington:
“I'm an American citizen, but my mom, stepfather, brother and sister are all Canadian,” Cameron says. “The last time I saw any of them in person was for the holidays last year. We talk on the phone, my siblings and I have had a few online hangouts. But at this point, I’ve missed a year of birthdays, I’ve missed family time, and going into missing the holidays. I know that I’m gonna miss more before all this is over, and every month the chance to see them gets pushed out just one more month, and then another, and then another. My partner and I haven’t traveled. We’ve tried to be responsible citizens. But some part of me thinks that maybe if we do enough, that it’ll all be over sooner, so I can go visit them.”
A lot of us are making these hard choices not to see family, even here in the U.S. But if you decide to get in your car and drive to a relative’s house in a different town or state, no one’s gonna stop you. Cameron says having this border restriction, that you can’t bypass? It makes it even harder.
“The effect I guess is ultimately the same, that I’m not seeing my family,” Cameron says. “But there’s some difference there I guess between choosing not to see my family out of protection, or safety, and then … a government telling me that I can’t go see them, that I can’t cross the border. I guess the whole thing just is, just made me feel really small.”
And it’s not just families that are being kept apart right now. Friends are, too. Our question-asker Gabrielle’s dad can’t cross the border for his curling club anymore. And we heard from Olivia Durham, of Barre, who told us about some “heartsick teens in New England and Quebec” who are part of a yearly exchange that she runs for teenagers, through several small churches in the Barre area, and Saint-Georges de Beauce, Quebec.
Olivia shared a poem written by a Quebecois young woman, Marilou Dallaire, both in French and English, and says the teens were really bummed this summer when they couldn’t have their annual gathering.
“The title of the poem is the date our meeting should have been held in 2020,” she notes.
Rêves brisés, espoirs détruits
Courir à l’aube
Gris sentier droit
Aucune chance de les voir
Photos du passé
Les larmes ne coulent pas
June 28, 2020
No hope of a happiness
Broken dreams, crashed hopes
Early morning run
Straight path grey and brown
No hope of seeing them
Pictures from the past
Tears not falling
Technically, visiting family members in Canada isn’t impossible right now. A few months ago, the Canadian government set up a system to allow family members to enter the country, but you have to submit an application and get written authorization from the government. So it’s not easy, making this a really difficult period of separation for many families.
My colleague Henry Epp spoke to one Vermonter who’s been dealing with this: Bess Onegow, the 27-year-old Williston resident we briefly heard from earlier.
“I was born and raised in Vermont, but to parents that are both American and Canadian,” she says. “So my dad's actually across the border in Canada.”
Bess’ dad Peter lives on a farm in Stanbridge East, Quebec, just over the border from Highgate, Vermont. The farm’s been in his family for decades, and he moved back there when he and Bess’ mother divorced when Bess was in high school.
Before the pandemic, Bess would go visit him about once a month.
“It's never really been an issue, that there's a border in between us and that we're in different countries,” she says. And her dad would cross the border to swing by her place all the time.
“It's not unusual for me to get home from work at the end of a normal day and find like, a jar of pickles or something by our doorstop, because that's what he does,” Bess says. “He loves driving around and he loves dropping off little treats like that.”
Bess last saw her dad and his best friend, who she calls her uncle, back in February. They went to her dad’s favorite restaurant: Outback Steakhouse.
“It was really good, and then right before we all left, them to go back up to Canada and my fiance and I to go home, I thought about it and said, ‘Wait a second, I don't have any pictures of the fact that we did this,’” she says. “So I like, called to them and brought 'em all back and got a picture of the four of us. And I'm really glad that I did, because that's the most recent picture that I have. And I'm hoping that, you know, sometime in the next year, I'll get another one.”
Henry Epp: What are some of the things that you're missing right now in terms of being able to go see your family, to just easily be able to cross the border as you normally would?
Bess Onegow: Well, the main thing I'm missing is being able to hug my father and my uncle and sit down and have a cup of tea with them and really catch up face-to-face and just spend that time with them. They're both in their 70s now. I missed my father's 70th birthday, and in April, my fiance and I got engaged, and I had to tell them via phone call. And that was wonderful to be able to hear their excitement and everything. But it was at the same time a little bit of a letdown, because I didn't get to see their faces or really hear their excitement in person.
And one added challenge… up until recently, Bess’ dad didn’t have internet access. And he’s not interested in doing video calls. He says it would be too hard to see her on a small screen.
Bess Onegow: So we talk on the phone regularly and we text all the time. I get daily updates about what the wildlife on the farm is doing, or what his cats are up to and whatnot. I also have started writing letters with my dad, and I love his handwriting. So any excuse I get to have him write me a little note or something has been wonderful.
Henry Epp: You mentioned that, I mean, despite this, you are in favor of the border closure. Tell me more about that.
Bess Onegow: Yes. I think that right now, it's a matter of safety. From what I've been reading in the news, it seems that there's a resurgence going on in the States, and there's a resurgence going on in Canada. And if the border remains closed, it's more likely that both sides are going to be kept a little bit safer and kind of not cross-contaminate each other. My dad and my uncle are both in their 70s, and they have some underlying health issues that make them a little more at risk for complications from COVID.
Bess says she has looked into the exemptions to the border closure for family members, which have been set up by the Canadian government. And she says she has a contingency plan.
Bess Onegow: It sounds like I would be allowed in as an immediate family member, because I'm basically all my dad has.
Henry Epp: Is there one thing that you're most looking forward to when you're able to get over the border again, go up to your dad's farm and see him?
Bess Onegow: I think I'm most looking forward to actually being able to give him a hug and to see his face smiling at me and be able to hug my uncle and see him smile at me as well, and to just go for a walk on the farm and have them show me what changes they've made while I've been away, and to just be able to be there and be in our place together.
The last person we’re gonna hear from is Kenny Saxe. He was born in Montreal, but he’s lived in Montpelier for the past 30 years. He calls himself a “Can-Am.”
“I tell people my left side is Canadian and my right side is American, and there’s a blend somewhere in the middle,” he says. "I think I identify more as Canadian than American."
For Kenny, the border closure has been pretty difficult.
“It’s been hard. It’s been very hard,” he says. “The only relative I had left in Montreal was my mom. We weren’t able to get across the border from March. I couldn’t go even to visit, and then when she got sick, I could not go across.”
You know where this is going. In May, Kenny’s 98-year-old mom, Sonia, got COVID-19 in her retirement residence and ended up in the hospital.
“The night she got there, they called me here at one in the morning. I figured this was gonna be, ‘She’s passed.’ No: ‘Your mother wants to talk to you.’ Oh, ok! And she got on, and my mother always used to joke that, you’ll know there’s something wrong when I lose my appetite. And I had just ordered, two days before she went to the hospital, I ordered a meal for her to be delivered from a restaurant she really likes in Montreal. And so she called to tell me I should tell 'em to hold on to that order, 'cause she won’t be home for a few days. Which was pretty weird, but that’s what she was thinking about at the time, didn’t want this meal to be delivered if she wasn’t there. You know? And obviously that meal never got delivered.”
Three days after testing positive for COVID, Kenny’s mom passed away.
“I think it happened so fast, I think she knew, but she didn’t suffer,” he says. “And I think it was harder for me and my siblings, just knowing we couldn’t be there. I’m trying to hold it together right now. It was just really hard.”
Kenny figures even if he lived in Montreal, he wouldn’t have been able to see his mom before she died.
“To be blunt, if I’d been in Montreal, it wouldn’t’ve been much different,” he says. “I still wouldn’t have been able to go to the hospital. I still wouldn’t have been able to visit her. [I try] to alleviate my guilt a little bit.”
But his mom’s funeral? Kenny missed that too.
“If I could’ve driven across the border for the day, I would’ve,” he says.
It’s not that Kenny couldn’t cross the border. He could — he has dual citizenship. But the timing just didn’t work out, with the quarantine rules. At this point, there are some exceptions around what’s called “compassionate entry” for situations like Kenny’s, but those weren’t in place back in May, when his mom died. Even traveling *within* Canada was restricted.
“My sister is Vancouver, in British Columbia, she couldn’t get in either,” Kenny says. “And my brother is in Ontario, near Kingston. And he slipped into Quebec for the day. Even he wasn’t supposed to do that, but he drove in. A funeral was at the cemetery, he went then drove home. Which I would’ve liked to have done, but… That’s gonna leave a scar with me for a long time.”
Missing the funeral. Kenny hasn’t forgiven himself for that. But he didn’t want to do a virtual service, either. He just went to one recently, for an older cousin, who also died of COVID.
“It was pretty strange. Doing a funeral on Zoom is not the way it’s supposed to be,” he says. “I’m not sorry that we didn’t do my mother’s that way. When it’s clear, we’ll go back and we’ll meet in Montreal and we’ll do our own thing.”
For now, Kenny’s trying to keep things in perspective. His mom Sonia lived a full life. And he says he’s grateful to be in Vermont for the pandemic.
“If you’ve got to be hunkered down somewhere, I know I’m very fortunate — I have a house,” he says. “So I wouldn’t dare complain, because I see what’s going on around the country, and I know the privilege that I have.”
But he’s still processing. He recently retired from a career in special education. So he has a lot of time to think.
“You know, the wounds haven’t healed yet,” Kenny says. “So I’ve had time to really dwell on it, I guess, and I’m a good dweller on stuff. Especially when I have all this time. In a weird way, I’m not sorry that I retired… but I don’t have a reason to get up in the morning right now. And I miss that. I don’t have a goal, I don’t have a purpose. I try to fill my day as best I can. And I don’t really like that, because it gives me too much time to reflect on things, and I tend to be — I go to the dark side. So if I’m busy, I’m good. So that’s why, winter, I just want it to be spring already, I want it to be April. And we’ll get there, but it’s gonna be a long dark winter.”
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Thanks to Gabrielle Coburn for the great question, and everyone who shared their stories for this episode. If you want to be a part of the BLS process, ask a question at bravelittlestate.org. While you’re there you can subscribe to our podcast and our newsletter for free, and vote on the question you want us to tackle next. We are on Instagram or Twitter at @bravestatevt.
Henry Epp contributed reporting to this episode, with editing from Lynne McCrea. Our digital producer is Elodie Reed, and we have engineering support from Peter Engisch. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Special thanks this month to Chris Albertine, VPR’s longtime engineer extraordinaire, who is retiring. Chris, you always made our show sound better. We're gonna miss you a lot.
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from VPR sustaining members. If you’re able to make a gift, you can do that at bravelittlestate.org/donate. Or just spread the word about the show.