In pictures: Stewart, B.C. and Hyder, Alaska residents protest border closure

A gate closing off the two communities was locked for the first time last night as Canadian border officers cut opening hours

The border between Stewart

For eight hours last night, a newly-erected yellow gate between Hyder, Alaska and Stewart, B.C. was locked for the first time, effectively shutting off access between the two communities – two communities that describe themselves as one.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we are one community in two countries,” said Hyder resident Caroline Simpson-Stewart. “It’s sad. What is being done to the people of Stewart and Hyder as a ‘cost cutting’ measure is wrong on so many levels, and thus far none of the customs people are being laid off, none of their hours are being cut, there were three people on duty all night – it reeks of wrong.”

The move to reduce the hours at the border and close the crossing between midnight and 8 a.m. – what some have described as a cost-cutting measure by the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) – has been met with fierce opposition and criticism from residents, businesses, and politicians on both sides of the border. But despite the outcry, the closure went ahead – with few answers from those behind the decision.

And so did a peaceful protest this morning at 7:30 a.m.

The gate doesn’t look like much – but Simpson-Stewart said there are cameras focussed on the crossing and she wouldn’t risk going across when it’s shut.

Opponents of the reduced hours tout safety – Hyder relies on Stewart’s health care centre and the road is the only evacuation route – as well as tourism and economic concerns.

“We do 90 per cent of our business in 90 days and anything that cuts into that is going to cut into our bottom line, and we’re barely hanging on as is,” said Stewart, who owns a gift shop in Hyder and plans to open a second gift shop this year, in what she anticipated would be a banner year because of low gas prices and the low Canadian dollar. “Now with this border closure, already the photographers, travel bloggers that come up here are saying, we’re not going to go – if we can’t be up there at six in the morning when the bears are feeding – because the bears are not going to wait to eat – we’re not going to come. If they’re not going to come then I have just invested a lot of time and money on a gift store that’s going to be a definite loser for me.”

But it goes beyond the local economy, she said.

“Then there’s also the mine – and if they can’t get up there, the other mines pending? They’re not going to open a mine if they can’t run shifts,” she said.

Speaking yesterday, Rick Kasum, the operating manager for mining company Ascot Resources in Stewart, B.C., indicated he is still hoping a common-sense combination of real safety concerns and economics will prevail – or at least get the CBSA to tweak the hours so they work for his company, the work site of which is only accessible by travelling through Hyder to British Columbia territory on the other side.

“The way they’re opening up and shutting the hours is really going to hurt us,” he said. “The hours of operation aren’t going to work for us, we work 24/7 right? I need the hours changed.”

He also needs to know that his workers can get across the border if one of them gets hurt – and assurances from CBSA that a phone call to nearby Beaver Creek for a code to unlock the gate aren’t enough, he said, noting that the satellite phones used on site aren’t reliable.

He’s baffled that his company wasn’t consulted before the changes were announced.

“They walked in and notified the town with 30 days, never talked to any businesses, no people, and just dropped a bomb on the town basically,” he said.

That point is echoed by Simpson-Stewart.

“If they had come in and spoken with any of us, if we had had the opportunity to show them that this plan is not well thought out at all,” she said, speaking of the border services agency. “If they had taken things into consideration, which they obviously have not, they might not have even made this decision. But no, they came, they made their decision based on February numbers which are nothing compared to July numbers.”

She’s frustrated by the lack of accountability and answers from the border services agency.

A bureaucrat “made a decision and it was the wrong decision and now he’s not answerable,” she said. “I want him to bring his kids to my house for a sleepover, tonight. I want him to be able to feel what it feels like to the people of Hyder. They made a bad decision and they’re not willing to own up to it.”

She said she wants Canadians to know “what their government is doing to their own citizens and their neighbours – their very lovely neighbours who they have been living in peace and accord with all of these years.”

The federal minister for public safety Stephen Blaney has yet to comment on the issue despite calls from media, Skeena-Valley MP Nathan Cullen, and others. Cullen, in a release yesterday, called on the minister to intervene.

Comment from CBSA was not received by press time.