Compromise could be coming to Stewart, B.C./ Hyder, Alaska border battle

Canada's border services agency says it is looking at alternative services options for the northwest B.C. border crossing

A compromise may be in the works to restore 24-hour access between the communities of Stewart, B.C. and Hyder, Alaska with Canada’s border services agency confirming it has been looking at alternative service options for the border crossing.

“We have been consulting with stakeholders in and around Stewart, B.C., as well as with first responders and law enforcement partners to explore additional alternative service options,” said Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA) spokesperson Robin Barcham in an email this morning. Barcham said the agency didn’t have anything specific to report, but “we look forward to further engagement at the community level.”

Speaking today, Skeena-Bulkley Valley NDP Nathan Cullen said he spoke with CBSA officials last night and indicated that the solution could come by way of a 24-hour access phone that would allow residents, tourists, and workers to cross during the overnight hours. There is currently a phone at the crossing that is for emergency access only.

“It would only work if tourists, locals, people coming in from Hyder itself and to Stewart were able to get through that border as well,” said Cullen. “It’s a very unique situation.”

The border connecting the two tiny communities has been closed overnight since April 1 – an open road manned by a border guard replaced with a locked gate and an emergency access phone.

The move has been panned by residents, businesses, and politicians on both side of the border, as well as the union representing Canada’s border guards, but CBSA says the amount of people using the crossing overnight didn’t justify keeping it open and staffed, so it reduced the border’s hours from open 24 hours a day to closed between midnight and 8 a.m.

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

The timeline should be “sooner than later and we are hopefully talking days, not months,” said Cullen. “I don’t think there’s a huge technological change we have to do it’s just a matter of changing some of the protocols.”

As for the border services agency, “talking to them last night they are fully engaged and I get the sense they feel the urgency of this – to not leaving these communities feeling so uncertain,” said Cullen.

“The responsiveness of government is important in all of this. When the government makes a decision that upsets people are they able to respond and adapt and realize a mistake was made and how can they correct it?”

Earlier this month, Cullen recently released a statement challenging minister of public safety Stephen Blaney, the minister in charge of the file, to visit Stewart and Hyder so he could better understand the connection between the two communities – the two towns market themselves as a package and the residents of Hyder rely on Stewart for medical and other services. That was after questioning the Conservatives in the House of Commons recently about the situation.

That’s when, for the first time, the minister’s office spoke publicly to the issue, with parliamentary secretary Roxanne James responding on behalf of the government.

“It is simply not feasible to pay a highly trained border services officer to stand at an unused border crossing,” said James April 24, noting that fewer than 10 travellers cross the border at non-peak times.

Expanding on that statement, CBSA’s Barcham said that the amount of cars that cross the border varies between winter and summer months, with an average of 10 vehicles processed overnight in the summer and an average of three vehicles processed overnight in the winter for a yearly average of five vehicles crossing overnight during those hours.

“The balance, representing 94 per cent of our traffic volume, cross during the hours of 8 a.m. to midnight,” said Barcham. Those are the hours the border is now open.

Meanwhile, a bill sponsored by Alaskan house representative Dan Ortiz has been making its way through the Alaskan house of representatives and senate, urging Canadian officials to reopen the border.

US Republican Senator for Alaska Lisa Murkowski has also been actively pushing for the border to be reopened – or, at the very least, for a compromise that sees the border open early during the summer months to accommodate the bear viewing platform in Hyder. The US Forest Service staffs a wildlife viewing platform from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

“For such a small border crossing it’s got a lot of attention,” said Cullen. “The very senior levels of the Canadian and US government. These borders matter and when government makes a decision that can hurt a community it is good to see so many people who want to engage and try to make things right.”

With files from Josh Massey