Border closure plan panned by Stewart and Hyder residents

The Canadian Border Services Agency to gate crossing between the two tight-knit communities north of Terrace beginning this spring

The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) plans on closing the border between Stewart, B.C. and Hyder, Alaska during overnight hours beginning this spring – but residents and business owners from both communities say the move will hold Hyder residents hostage and negatively affect shared tourism, industry and emergency services.

“After careful review the CBSA has decided to reduce the operating hours at the Stewart Port of Entry,” said a statement from CBSA media relations. “Representatives from the CBSA have met with some stakeholders to discuss the changes to the way we deliver service, including the planned reduction of hours.”

That planned reduction of hours means the border – the only road entry point into Hyder and the only road connecting Stewart with mining and industrial projects located in Canadian territory on the other side of Hyder – will be closed between midnight and 8 a.m. beginning April 1.

The CBSA cites “an in-depth review of port volumes and passage statistics [where] it was determined that few travellers utilized the operation outside of the primary operating hours.”

Currently, the border crossing is manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week with visitors and residents checking in with Canadian border services agents on their way to Canada. There is no US customs outfit at the crossing. Less than 100 people live in Hyder, with Stewart’s population hovering around 400.

People on both sides of the border say the planned reduction came without any substantial consultation – and little understanding of the necessity of open, all-hours road access between the two communities who share almost everything including an area code, hydro, and emergency services, and are only three kilometres apart.

“I think it’s absolutely asinine,” said Angela Brand Danuser, former mayor of Stewart, current school trustee, and owner of Brand New Video on Main St. “It’s very short-sighted and as far as I can tell from my discussions with CBSA it’s based totally on dollars. It would be really nice if they’d looked at what the impact on the community will be instead of just the dollars.”

She said Stewart residents and businesses first learned of the decision at Monday’s regular council meeting and she has been in contact with CBSA officials throughout the week and encouraging residents on both sides to contact politicians who can put pressure on CBSA to reverse its decision.

“People don’t believe that they could actually block the highway. Some people say, no big deal, we’ll just go around it. You can’t just go around the gate, they’ll have cameras there. They have cameras at the place now,” she said. “People think they’re just going to close the office, but that’s not what they’re saying. They’re going to be blocking the road.”

And while an effort is being made this week by CBSA to reach out to residents and businesses in Stewart and Hyder, Brand Danuser says it’s too little too late – especially for the CBSA to be consulting those in Hyder.

“They [CBSA] probably don’t have to consult with [Alaskan businesses and residents] but they’re talking about closing them off and pretty much holding them hostage in their own country and even stopping them from being able to get back to their own country – you think there would have been some more community consultation on both sides,” she said.

For Wes Loe, owner of the Hyder General Store and president of the Hyder Community Association, the decision to reduce the border’s hours just as the area’s tourist season gets underway – and as port activity picks up – defies logic.

“It’s like buying a house and closing the bathroom so you can’t use it,” said Loe.

“In this area we get a large group of tourists from Europe – Germans, Scandinavians type of thing – and they start coming in on April 1. My thought process would be keep the border open all summer long and then try your closure in the wintertime,” he said.

“I know a lot of people, when there’s a change, people don’t like the change, and then a lot of times the changes are good – but I can’t see any good for this. My god, you’ve got the world port going in at Stewart,” he said. “In a couple more months there could be some big ships coming in tying up here… Here’s all this commerce coming in and they’re closing down. I don’t understand the logic of it.”

He said he understands the border isn’t the busiest – but a change like this will affect hundreds of people’s lives and hurt businesses in Hyder, many of whom have already seen business decline in the last few years as the price of fuel has gone up and fewer American tourists visit the area.

“It’s going to hurt, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “We need the people coming in and out of here. When they hear the border’s closed, they’re not going to drive down here, they’re going to keep on going… It just seems like it’s one thing after another.”

Tourists and people from Stewart often stay in Hyder at the bars past midnight or visit early in the morning when the bear viewing area opens. Three people live in Hyder and work in Stewart, said Loe, noting that they usually cross the border around 6:30 a.m.

“Here’s someone sitting in a little office in the middle of nowhere making decisions on people that are out here and living every day lives – and all of the sudden he wants to change hundreds of people’s lives and it’s all about saving some money,” he said. “Usually when you’re going to do something this drastic you would start a survey or talk to the people, try to get some feedback.”

The logistics of how emergency service vehicles would continue to have access to Hyder during the hours the border is closed is also a concern to residents, with both Loe and Brand Danuser acknowledging the chances of an emergency are a rare but real possibility.

The CBSA has indicated it “remains committed to the free flow of legitimate goods and people across the border, and will provide the flexibility necessary for the CBSA to process the ongoing demand for their services.”

Follow-up questions put to the CBSA – including how much money they anticipate saving by reducing the hours at the border – have not been answered.

Meanwhile, pressure from the area’s political representatives is beginning to mount, with Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen saying this morning that he will be calling on the federal government to reverse the decision.

“This is all about budget cuts,” he said. “We have seen massive cuts to border security across Canada from the same government that says we need more border security, it’s all about the politics of trying to cut their way to a balanced budget… this is a small case but an important one and it affects our ability to do business across the border frankly. Once they start cutting hours they will continue to cut hours and that is a vital crossing for both communities.”

And Stikine MLA Doug Donaldson said that from a provincial standpoint, he has asked the minister of jobs, tourism and training Shirley Bond to “immediately get in touch with the federal counterparts on behalf of the government of B.C. and see if we can do something to rectify some of those concerns.

“There’s obviously some potentially big implications for industrial activity like mining and for tourism as well. Tourists want to get on the road before 8 a.m. to go see things through the border on the other side or up into B.C. through the other side and through Hyder,” he said. “It might have to do with cost savings but from the provincial perspective there’s a lot of activity that generates revenue that can be dependent on having a full hours of operation at that border crossing.”

For the B.C. government’s part, the ministry of jobs, tourism and training says it is in contact with CBSA.

“As soon as we were made aware of pending changes we made initial contact with CBSA to understand what has been proposed and why. We have asked for further information and expect to receive more specific details shortly. We are analyzing potential impacts,” read a statement sent this afternoon. “Tourism is an economic driver in B.C. We remain committed to working with the community and small business owners in the area to find a solution that serves the interests of British Columbians first.”

And speaking on behalf of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Jaime Ruiz said US customs officials would defer to the Canadian border patrol when it comes to decisions about the Hyder/Stewart border and if the CBSA wanted to block the road, closing access to Hyder during the evening, they would not object.