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On the border: As the Canadian border closure remains, separated families get creative for meet-ups

UPDATED: Mon., June 21, 2021

BLAINE, WASHINGTON – Peace Arch Park is a bit of a no man’s land – not quite Canada, not quite the United States – but for Jim and Jane Simpson, it’s a part of their relationship.

The tree at the end of the park is where they had their first kiss. The gazebo at the other end is where they got married in September. The picnic benches are where they have family barbecues.

And as they remain separated by the closure of the U.S.-Canadian border, it’s the one place they are able to easily meet in-person.

Jim Simpson, who is American, and Jane Simpson, who is Canadian, went to elementary school in Vancouver together but lost touch after seventh grade. Last April, amid the start of the pandemic, they reconnected on Facebook.

Jane Simpson, 57, has visited Jim Simpson, 57, in the United States nine times at his home since the pandemic started, but every time she comes back to Canada she gets tested three times and completes a two-week quarantine. She doesn’t have to do that following their park meetings.

The couple thought this past quarantine would be her last, but after Canada’s announcement on Friday that the border would remain closed for another month, they’re not sure what the future holds.

They had no idea the border closure would last this long.

Jim Simpson waited in Peace Arch Park on Saturday with his dog, Vesper. Jane Simpson was set to meet them there that morning – the first time in three weeks they would see each other in person.

“I see you!” Jim Simpson told Jane Simpson on the phone, letting Vesper’s leash go so the dog could greet her first. After Jim Simpson caught up, the two embraced.

“I love you,” they said to each other.

Border towns become destinations for family meetups

When the U.S.-Canadian border closed last March, many families in border towns with family in both countries became desperate to see each other face-to-face.

On any given weekend, the border roads in the northwest Washington towns of Lynden, Blaine and Sumas are filled with families looking to hug each other for the first time in months, celebrate birthdays or holidays, or even meet with immigration lawyers.

By 9 a.m. on Saturdays, Peace Arch Park is filled with lawn chairs, coolers, barbecues and tents, where people spend all day with family members they haven’t seen in months. Because it is situated in between the borders, residents of both countries can freely meet there, as long as they don’t exchange gifts and return to their respective countries.

With the border closure, family members in the U.S. can’t go into Canada to visit relatives unless they have Canadian citizenship or they are visiting for an essential reason, which includes visiting an ill family member in their final days, work obligations and some travel for sport competitions.

If someone with Canadian citizenship enters the country from the United States, they will be admitted but are forced to quarantine for 14 days.

Canadian officials have said they are waiting until more of the country is fully vaccinated before loosening restrictions. Currently, almost 66% of residents have one shot, but only about 18% have both.

In his announcement extending the closure, Canadian Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair said the decision was done in coordination with the U.S., but no U.S. announcement has been made yet. Blair also hinted that some restrictions might be loosened for Canadian residents who are fully vaccinated. More on that is expected Monday.

Continued closure of border ‘such a disappointment’

In the small Dutch town of Lynden, Washington, the two countries are separated by a ditch and a short fence.

On Saturdays, a small group of people who are part of a national “Families are Essential” Facebook Group meet at the fence for a rally.

They bring signs that say “Love is Essential” or “Families Belong Together” with drawings of Canadian and U.S. flags.

This week, six adults and three children who waved American flags stood on the American side of the border. Almost all have family in Canada.

Linda Wylie’s son, daughter-in-law and grandchild live in Canada.

Wylie, originally from Sandpoint, Idaho, moved to Lynden three years ago to be closer to her son. Now with the border closed, they get together every once in a while at the ditch. Wylie was hoping the border would open before her husband’s 80th birthday, but with Friday’s news that the border would remain closed for another month, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

“It’s such a disappointment,” she said.

Helena Van Dril, 55, lives in Lynden with her husband and children, but her family lives in Ontario and her husband’s family lives just across the border from her. Normally, they would come down to visit at least once a week.

Van Dril said she has Canadian citizenship, but “it doesn’t mean much” right now.

Most frustrating to many family members are the inconsistencies during the pandemic and the limbo they’re in as they wait every month for a reopening announcement, Jeanette Bouwman, of Lynden, said.

She has children in Canada, and although her husband has an essential job and can travel back and forth for work, she is unable to visit unless she quarantines for two weeks.

Bouwman said she’s sent letters and made phone calls to governmental agencies, hoping for an answer on the closure.

“Everybody is just looking for a plan,” Vicky Stockton, who owns property in Canada, said.

As they stood on the south side of the fence to exchange stories, a biker in Canada rode by and waved.

“USA! USA! USA!” he chanted.

Peace Arch Park becomes COVID-19 wedding destination

The Simpsons chose a Monday to get married in Peace Arch Park.

The weekends are generally filled with other Canadian-U.S. families celebrating weddings, and they knew it would be too crowded.

Jane Simpson borrowed her daughter’s white dress from her Snow Ball. Jim Simpson wore a tux. Their friends made their cake, decorated the space for them and officiated.

The couple originally wanted to get married in Hawaii in December, but as the pandemic worsened, it became evident they needed a backup.

“Maybe this is the place we should get married,” Jane Simpson remembered thinking of Peace Arch Park.

After every visit into the U.S., Jim Simpson walks his wife back to the Canadian border. They pass the tree where they had their first kiss, the international border markings and the large white Peace Arch that promises “may these gates never be closed.”

When they get to the border, they say goodbye and turn away.

But their dog, Vesper, who lives with Jim Simpson, always tugs on her leash and looks back at Jane.

“It’s been really hard on her,” Jim Simpson said. “On all of us.”


Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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