DULUTH – Paul Colson was ready to raise a ruckus — and risk arrest — if Canadian border officials denied him entry on his drive home to the Northwest Angle on Tuesday.
After almost 13 months of pandemic-prompted border restrictions, which recently grew more onerous, Colson said he and other residents feel "we are dispensable. We don't matter."
"I'll just block the road, they can throw me in jail," he said. "I've got to do something."
To his surprise, he was able to travel the nearly 50 miles through Manitoba back to that unique Minnesota peninsula jutting into Lake of the Woods that is only accessible by land through Canada.
Colson, who owns Jake's Northwest Angle resort and is one of the exclave's roughly 120 year-round residents, says it is time to get more assertive. He has forged relationships with the state's federal delegation — Sen. Amy Klobuchar's office called him Wednesday afternoon, and he has a direct line to GOP Reps. Michelle Fischbach and Pete Stauber — but has seen no results.
"Enough with the letter writing, enough with the phone calls," he said. "No one is willing to up the ante, and that's what we need them to do."
Since the border was closed to nonessential travelers on March 21, 2020, Canadian officials have not yielded to pressure from U.S. officials who have asked for more exceptions for those who can enter the country — including those just passing through on their way back to American soil. About 60% of the land on the Northwest Angle belongs to the Red Lake Band of Chippewa.
Sen. Tina Smith urged U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to "work with your Canadian counterparts to devise a solution that addresses the needs of border exclave communities, and the Northwest Angle specifically," she wrote in a letter this week.
"We had a resort owner who left the Northwest Angle in January, and when they returned on Easter Sunday they were not allowed to pass," Smith said in an interview. "People don't feel the sense of urgency to get this resolved."
The Canadian government in February began requiring those entering Canada to present a negative COVID-19 test that is less than three days old and cannot be a rapid test. That's a condition Northwest Angle residents say is being applied to them now as well, though government guidelines say they should still be exempt.
The Public Health Agency of Canada said in an e-mail Friday that "exemptions are available for these residents to access the necessities of life, such as medical care, food etc." While that allows Northwest Angle residents to go grocery shopping and see a doctor in Canada, it was not clear if the testing exemption applies to those who wish to pass through on their way to the mainland U.S. and back.
Smith said she "has not been able to get solutions from the Canadian government, but I am hopeful."
Colson was less optimistic.
"We have a problem because there's 100 of us and the Canadians see no political advantage to helping us out," he said. "They've taken my income, now they're going after my dignity."
Joe Henry, head of Lake of the Woods Tourism, has proposed several solutions for travel to the Northwest Angle: Require GPS tracking on the route from the mainland to the Angle; hire a pilot car to guide vehicles; make the road an international travel corridor; or just have travelers check in with Canadian officials.
Proof of vaccination will not grant passage into Canada, though it has been discussed by top officials.
"Future studies of COVID-19 vaccines will help the Public Health Agency of Canada to understand how long protection from the COVID-19 vaccine lasts and whether the vaccine can reduce the spread of the disease," the agency said. "Currently, travelers arriving in Canada, whether they are vaccinated or not, must follow mandatory quarantine and testing requirements, including a 14-day quarantine. Any change to this approach will be based on scientific evidence and expert advice."
On Friday, Klobuchar wrote to the Biden administration saying that as the vaccine rollout continues and rapid testing becomes more widespread, Northwest Angle residents "need a new solution."
"The need for drastic restrictions on travel should give way to common-sense solutions that will allow for residents, workers and visitors to the Angle to access their homes, places of work and U.S.-based cabins and rooms, while maintaining the necessary precautions during the pandemic," the senator wrote to Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas.
Stauber said at a roundtable discussion on border issues this week that "a blanket policy, on both sides of the border, I think it's unfair."
Colson said he is pretty sure his neighbors — a Lake of the Woods deputy sheriff, his wife and their six kids — will have trouble getting home Friday after more than a week away due to the testing requirements and the difficulty of getting a timely test result along the border.
Some resorts have been listed for sale as other residents reconsider life on the remote and isolated corner of the country, Colson said.
"People are leaving, and for no good reason."
Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496