Tiny community on US-Canada border cut in half by Covid restrictions

The international divide runs through the towns of Derby Line, Vermont, and Stanstead, Quebec

Journalist Robin Smith (L) meets in early July 2020 with family members at the closed border gate in Derby Line, Vermont, at the US-Canadian border. Photo by Julie Jacques

For years, Robin Smith lived less than a kilometre away from her parents. Every day, she would drive over to say hello and help with household chores.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and her daily trips became impossible.

Ms Smith lived in the tiny town of Derby Line in the US state of Vermont.

Her parents lived just over the border in the slightly larger but still small village of Stanstead, Quebec, Canada.

"When the pandemic started, it was scary and they closed the border to non-essential travellers and that included me. So, I was cut off from my parents," Ms Smith told The National.

The US and Canada share the longest land border in the world, stretching about 9,000 kilometres through rugged forests, mountains and prairie. For millions of people who live along the border, the two countries often blend into one.

Derby Line and Stanstead share the same library. The international boundary line cuts across the building’s hardwood floors. The villages are inextricably linked and families like the Smiths live on both sides.

But since March 21 of last year, the border between the US and Canada has been closed to all non-essential travel. The US has done the same with its southern border with Mexico.

At first, the border was closed for 30 days, but as the months passed, the US and Canadian governments continued to extend the closure.

The US has the highest number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in the world. About 28 million people have been infected with the virus and the nation's death toll is approaching 500,000.

In Canada, fewer than 850,000 people have contracted Covid-19 and about 22,000 have died.

While both countries appear to be heading in the right direction after a brutal second wave, neither are ready to let up on border restrictions they believe are crucial to protecting lives, even at the expense of their respective economies.

In an average year, roughly 14 million people travel north to Canada from the US for tourism. Millions of Canadians also travel south every year to shop and spend money in the US. Nearly all of that exchange has been lost since the borders closed.

Though vaccines have become more widely available, restrictions in both countries have actually increased.

Canada cracking down on travel

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is doing his best to discourage Canadians from any travel.

As of February 15, all Canadians arriving to the country by land must provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test. Starting on February 22, travellers arriving by land will have to take a Covid-19 test at the border and then proceed to quarantine for 14 days.

Entering Canada by air is even more difficult. Canadian travellers must take a Covid-19 test on arrival and then proceed to spend three nights at a government-approved hotel at their own expense before quarantining for another 11 days at their place of residence.

In July, Ms Smith, a long-time journalist at a local Vermont paper, made the difficult choice of uprooting her life and moving back to Canada. As a dual citizen, she was allowed to enter the country but required to quarantine upon arrival.

I'm afraid that the pandemic will finish what 9/11 started

“I moved like less than a mile, a quarter mile as the crow flies, across the border but it was like moving from California to Vermont," she said.

"I had to do it all at once. I couldn’t go back and clean up the house or move in stages.”

Ms Smith is worried the border closure has irrevocably changed the fabric of the two towns she calls home.

“I’m afraid that the pandemic will finish what 9/11 started which is that the border has become a barrier that is real as opposed to a sort of permeable barrier.

"Before, it used to be a lot of people crossed and it wasn’t that hard. You could go back and forth all the time and it was easy,” she said.

Now, she is cut off from her old life, even though she is within walking distance of the home she just sold.

“It’s just daily life that’s changed. I can't go to the store over there and get my favourite bread. But I’m with my favourite people and that’s the important thing,” she said.