In the northern Minnesota town of Roseau, 10 miles from the Canada border, daily life is intertwined with its neighbor to the north.
Youth hockey teams cross to Canada for practices and games. Families seeking entertainment drive two hours to Winnipeg, the closest metropolitan center. Canadians work at Polaris Industries’ 1,500-employee manufacturing facility in town. And everyone fishes for walleye on the trans-border Lake of the Woods.
But a cost-cutting decision by U.S. Customs and Border Protection last year has tested those deep ties. The agency changed the operating hours of the border port in Roseau, closing it at 8 p.m. each night instead of midnight.
So Roseau residents returning from a trip to Canada must either come home earlier than they used to, or drive about 20 miles east to Warroad or about 80 miles west to Pembina, N.D., for 24-hour ports. A trip through Warroad adds nearly an hour to their drive time.
The federal decision came as a shock to people here, who said it was foisted on them with little community input. When Canada adopted similar hours for the Manitoba side of the border, Canadians raised such a stink that their government quickly restored midnight as the closing time for people heading north.
But even when the Roseau community offered to raise money to pay for staffing the U.S. border crossing until midnight, local officials say, the feds held firm.
“We’re a community that’s very tied into Canada, and this decision was made by people who don’t understand that,” said Todd Peterson, Roseau’s community development coordinator. “Let’s say that all of a sudden all bridges from Minneapolis to St. Paul close at 8 p.m. — how would you feel about that?”
The federal rationale is simple: Cost-cutting should be achieved at less-used ports of entry. U.S. Customs and Border Protection says that a five-year study of the Roseau port showed steadily declining traffic between 2013 and 2017 — a 19% decline in personal vehicles and a 37% drop in commercial vehicles. It also indicated that the shorter hours would have little effect on cross-border trade and travel, the agency said.
Meanwhile, according to an agency spokesman, the adjusted hours have saved the federal government hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s not just Roseau that’s affected; the crossing near Lancaster about 60 miles to the west also reduced its hours.
While Roseau residents often presume the change resulted from increased attention to the U.S.-Mexico border, federal officials say that’s not the case.
Roseau’s hours changed in 2018, while the temporary reassignment of 731 officers to the southwest border happened earlier this year.
The border hours are more annoyance than emergency. Even so, Roseau leaders take them seriously.
LifeCare Medical Center in Roseau serves 17,000 people in a 60-mile radius that includes rural Manitoba. (It has an agreement with Manitoba’s health agency to provide care.) The reduced border hours have an exception for emergencies — ambulances can cross the border when it’s closed, albeit less efficiently — but Canadians with medical problems after 8 p.m. who don’t want to call an ambulance must wait until morning.
The bigger issue, though, is with the hospital’s 450-employee workforce, especially in the region’s tight job market. LifeCare was recently recruiting in Canada and heard repeated concerns about border hours. One nurse who lives north of the border might quit because the crossing can add nearly an hour to her commute for an overnight shift, hospital officials said.
“Business is tough and challenging in a rural setting,” said Keith Okeson, the hospital CEO. “I’ve heard concerns about counting on the Canadian traffic as part of business’ profits for the year. If a Canadian chooses not to come down here due to the restricted hours, that has an impact on our community.”
Nathan Hanson, the Roseau plant manager for Polaris, says outdoor recreation in the Northwest Angle — the finger of northern Minnesota that juts into Canada — is a big part of their recruiting pitch. But because a drive from Roseau to the Northwest Angle means going from the U.S. to Canada and back, reduced border hours have made it less convenient. Instead of staying at a cabin until 8 p.m. Sunday, he said, people now leave around 5 p.m. Instead of a one-day fishing trip, they may not make the trip at all.
Moreover, Polaris’ work schedules don’t match up with the border hours: The early shift starts before the border opens at 8 a.m., and the late shift ends after the border closes at 8 p.m. Polaris has Canadian employees who have even rented apartments in Roseau during the week to avoid the border hassle.
“It’s less than ideal,” Hanson said.
People in Roseau also say they’re using Winnipeg less as an entertainment hub because of the reduced border hours. They need to leave the Manitoba city before 6 p.m. to make the border crossing, unless they want to turn their two-hour drive to Roseau into a three-hour drive through Warroad. The same applies for air travelers returning through Winnipeg, the closest major airport; return flights must arrive well before 5 p.m. to make the Roseau border on time.
“It’s just frustrating on any number of levels,” said Jack Swanson, a Roseau County commissioner. “A lot of Minnesotans have cabins up there, and it just creates another barrier. Where we are, the Manitobans and the Minnesotans are essentially the same people. They’re related.”
A spokesperson for the federal agency said there are no plans to shift the hours back to midnight, though it will continue to monitor the situation. U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who serves the Seventh District, has pressed to restore the previous hours for the border crossing — so far to no avail.
“We have enough barriers,” Todd Peterson said. “This is just one more barrier that makes it that much more difficult to operate in Roseau, Minnesota.”