The Haskell Free Library and Opera straddles the border between Canada and the U.S., serving residents of Stanstead, Que. and Derby Line, Vermont, about 120 kilometres southeast of Montreal. A thick, black line running diagonally through the library’s reading room marks the international border.
Outside, a half-dozen boulders demarcate the frontier on the manicured lawn. A pair of freshly driven poles with a link of steel chain stop pedestrians from wandering across the sidewalk and into the other country. Two thin threads of yellow tape — in front of a sign that reads “NO LOITERING” in six languages on the American side of the border — deter cars from driving over boundary line.
The border closure imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult for the library to serve its patrons. It remains closed in late 2021 except for curbside pickup on Saturday for Americans only.
If it wasn’t for COVID, Canadians would be able to walk along the sidewalk, across the international border and enter the library’s main entrance in Vermont without having to report to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol – so long as they returned to Canada as soon as they left the building and didn’t stray into Derby Line.
“All Canadian patrons crossing the border would need one negative test to enter and another to leave, even if they only want to go to the library, which is ridiculous,” said library employee Mélanie Aubé in an email.
The library is run by two Canadian staff, including Aubé, and an American volunteer who delivers books. Readers have access to the library’s catalogue online and can order through the website or by phone.
“It is working pretty well, although we know some members are waiting for the reopening to use the library again,” stated Aubé.
Jay Johnson, the American volunteer, delivers and collects books from readers in Quebec in a Vermont-plated van every Wednesday and Friday.
It isn’t just the library that’s affected; restaurants have gone out of business, loved ones were separated and residents have been frustrated with PCR test requirements at the border.
In August 2019, nearly 160,000 travellers crossed the border at Stanstead, but that number dwindled to just 3,367 in August 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. On Aug. 9, 2021, Canada reopened its side of the border, leading to more than 10,000 crossings that month. Still, it’s nowhere near pre-pandemic levels.
Barrier to business
Johnson checked in on Karine Cantin to see if she had a book to return. She’s been running a local bed and breakfast, Auberge le Sunshine, since 2018. Almost 40 per cent of her pre-pandemic revenue came from American customers.
When there were no travel restrictions, about 10 customers a day would come from Vermont. Even though the border is open, the expensive PCR test required for Americans to enter Canada means that she sees fewer than one American shopper a day.
“Usually, a lot [of customers] come here just for bread or pastries then they go back to their house (in the U.S.), but they can't do that now,” said Cantin.
To survive, she’s partnered with other businesses in Stanstead to sell local products, such as salad, jam and honey, online. If the customers are close enough, she delivers the orders by bicycle.
“It’s very important that the border is open,” said Cantin. “I think our town needs hope.”
Another local bed and breakfast was a popular spot for cyclists from Newport, VT to rest for a panino lunch, said Cantin. But the border closure made the business financially unsustainable. It shuttered for good during the pandemic.
“We lost a lot of good restaurants,” said Cantin. “It’s a big change for a small town like us.”
In an interview before the holiday season, she said she wasn’t holding out hope for Christmas. She said she thought there might be a slight uptick in business for December, but didn't think it’d be by much.
The Canada Border Services Agency expects to see more cross-border traffic this Christmas compared to last year, but not as much as the same time in 2019, a spokesperson said.
A reporter’s interactions with border police
Capital Current’s Jonathan Got doesn’t speak much French, but Morgane Wauquier does. He spent two days in Stanstead photographing the people Wauquier interviewed. Here’s what his interactions were like:
I went to Rue Canusa on my first day there. I thought the border was on the southern edge of the road. Turns out, the border ran right down the middle of the road so the westbound lane was in Canada and the eastbound lane was in the U.S. I got out of my car to take photographs of the street flanked with border checkpoints of the two countries.
I walked right up to the southern edge of the road to take photos. Before long, a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Agent came out of the U.S. checkpoint’s building and told me I was standing on American soil. I had a bright yellow press vest on and explained what this article was about. After a short chat, I volunteered to walk back to Canada.
I took photos of the Haskell Free Library and Opera just before I left Stanstead on the second day. An unmarked U.S. CBP pickup truck hovered on the other side of the border monitoring me. I ignored it as I was on the Canadian side. I left a few minutes later only to have the RCMP pull me over before I got on the highway.
The RCMP cruisers patrolling the border are equipped with specialist monitoring and communications equipment not seen on other patrol cars. My best guess is that the U.S. CBP agent notified the RCMP to check me out. After I told the RCMP officer that I was a reporter working on an article, he said that it was just a routine check with nothing to worry about.
Older residents said that the mood on the border has changed since 9/11. I’ve been told that while border patrol officers stepped up enforcement after 2001, they are always friendly to locals - and this held true in both my interactions.
Metres away, months apart
Mike Haddad, the pastor of Derby Community Church, used to be one of the cross-border shoppers who frequented Auberge le Sunshine. At first, many Derby Line residents thought the border closure was only going to last a few weeks. But as the measure was extended time after time, people lost hope.
“I can look up a recipe online and do my best to replicate what I would get at the bakery. But you can't look up a recipe online and replicate a meeting with grandma,” said Haddad.
There are many cross-border families in the area. Although people from both sides could meet up a metre away from the border, they couldn’t touch each other.
“I can look up a recipe online and do my best to replicate what I would get at the bakery. But you can't look up a recipe online and replicate a meeting with grandma."— Mike Haddad, pastor of Derby Community Church
“People were lamenting the fact that they couldn't cross the border where people (have) actual living, breathing family and loved ones,” said Haddad. “Particularly people… who have grandparents and or great-grandparents over the border. These are people that in a couple years might not be around anymore.”
Jane McIntyre owns Jane’s Cafe about 50 metres from the border in Derby Line. She lives in Quebec, but crosses the border every day to get to work.
“It's like we live in two countries, and half of our life is taken away when we can’t go into one country or the other,” she said. “It’s just like somebody all of a sudden put a wall and so you can’t go on the other side of town.”
Marriage on the border
In September, bride Alana Bridges and groom Austin Hill traveled with their families from about half a dozen states and provinces to the Stanstead-Derby Line border to get married after months of being separated. The wedding took place in the middle of the street where the border was marked by nothing more than yellow tape, so family and friends from both sides could gather a metre from each other to watch the wedding. Cantin catered for that wedding, and provided tables and chairs for the ceremony.
“Basically, everything ... that we needed on our side for Stanstead, (Karine) looked after them,” said Diane Bridges, the bride’s mother. “And she was amazing.”
Cantin also provided the bride’s family with a place to stay at Auberge le Sunshine. It’s where they took family pictures and did the father-daughter dance to the song Butterfly Kisses before heading to the border for the start of the ceremony.
“It turned out that it was more intimate and nice than being out in the middle of the street,” said Diane.
On the Quebec side, the bride’s brother walked her down the road, and the bride and groom did their first look. Then, Alana, who holds dual citizenship, crossed into Vermont where she and Hill exchanged vows by the Haskell Library and Opera.
In Derby Line, local photographers, videographers, restaurants and businesses came together to help out with the wedding.
Bridges recalls everyone in the community being very supportive. “People were honking and people were videoing or going ‘woohoo!’ as they would drive by,” said Diane. “So that was really cool.”
For her, the border wedding turned out to be “a lovely experience” thanks to the beauty of the towns and the kindness of their respective locals.
Love bridges borders
International couple Hélène Hamel and Mark Linton also began their relationship when they met through a mutual friend who sold tickets for a play at the Haskell Library and Opera.
“It’s the only opera in the U.S. without a stage,” said Hamel. The stage is on the Canadian side of the building.
Hamel, a Canadian, lives in Stanstead, while Linton, an American, lives in Derby, five kilometres south of Derby Line. Before the border closed, the couple used to see each other once a week. But when Linton returned to the U.S. after seeing Hamel in February 2020, they wouldn’t meet until October that year.
“He went back and we sort of said, ‘Well, see you soon,’” said Hamel. “We never, in our wildest dreams, thought it would be eight and a half months.”
In October, the Canadian government started allowing those in long-term relationships to visit Canada. Linton had to get his paperwork notarized and waited several weeks for the Canadian government’s approval. He’d visit every so often, but was required to quarantine for 14 days on each visit.
“You'd have these two intense weeks and then, well, (Mark would have to) go home now,” said Hamel.
Although Linton wasn’t allowed to leave Hamel’s home, he was never bored.
“She keeps me busy when I come over. The grass has to be mowed, cleaning the kitchen floor,” Linton laughed. “It wasn't like boredom.”
Since August, Linton has visited Hamel every weekend. He’d cross over to Canada on Friday afternoon, spend time with her, then return to the U.S. on Monday. On Tuesday, he’d take a PCR test, provided for free by the Vermont government, to prepare for his next crossing,
“This whole thing has actually made our commitment stronger,” said Hamel. “We don't take each other for granted anymore.” Her partner couldn’t agree more.
“I think we've got a great relationship now and we value our time together a lot more,” said Linton.
PCR test requirement frustrates residents
While Linton hasn’t been bothered by the PCR testing requirement, some other residents in Derby Line and Stanstead haven’t felt the same.
Fritz Halbedl, who owns Derby Line Village Inn with his wife, Paula, moved to the town in 2013. Before the pandemic hit, he would cross into Quebec several times a week. He said he used to go to Sherbrooke, Que., a city 55 kilometres north of Stanstead, to play tennis with his buddies.
Now, even with the borders reopen, he said he doesn’t want to go.
“They made it really difficult. I stay away from it,” explained Halbedl. “When they open up and they make it easier, (I’ll) probably (be) the first one over there.”
The PCR requirement was to be lifted for Canadians returning from trips of less than 72 hours starting Nov. 30. But foreign nationals, including Americans like Halbedl, will still have to provide proof of a negative PCR test to enter Canada. The U.S. does not currently require this same proof for southbound travellers.
For Halbedl, the requirement is very frustrating.
“I think if you show that you are vaccinated, maybe even already have your booster (shot) . . . that should be accepted,” he said. “Why do you need another $300 test? I mean, that makes no sense.”
Like many local hotels and restaurants, the inn he runs suffered from the border closure during the pandemic. Canadians used to make up about 35 per cent of his business. Now, he hardly sees any, even though the border reopened in August. According to Halbedl, the PCR requirement is partly responsible for the lack of Canadian reservations.
But he’s hopeful that things could change.
“If they ease the (testing) at the border, we will have a good amount of Canadians coming (back),” said Halbedl.
Simon Proulx, who owns the video game store La Taverne du Gamer in Stanstead, also has his fingers crossed that testing requirements will be further loosened. He thinks they’re in the way of Americans coming to his shop, which is only 30 metres from the Canadian checkpoint.
When he opened his business in February 2020, he was hoping his location near the border would allow him to reach an American clientele.
“We wanted to reach customers that were on the other side of the border, but we never got the chance to see people coming from there,” said Proulx. “We would’ve had a much bigger clientele if the borders were open like they were before the pandemic.”
And he doesn’t think this will change as long as the PCR tests are required of Americans.
“I haven’t had more clients yet. I open the doors and I see customs. The traffic isn’t the same yet. It’s too early, it’s too complicated (for Americans to come). And you need both vaccine doses, and some people are not vaccinated and can’t cross yet,” explained Proulx.
Like Halbedl in Derby Line, Proulx said he feels frustrated. For him, the testing requirements are a barrier to business. “I think it’s what’s stopping Americans from coming.”
He said some Americans used to cross into Canada just to do some shopping, but now he expects the only American customers are people entering Canada for longer trips. That could change if the PCR tests are lifted for foreigners.
“Once the border will be easier to pass through, once it’ll be easier to enter Canada, it’ll help us reach a greater clientele,” said Proulx. “It needs to be how it was before. It used to be so easy to cross from one side to the other, especially for people in border towns.”
Worrying infection rates in Vermont
Many Americans still aren’t vaccinated. Proulx said this is also why a portion of his customers aren’t stepping foot in his store anymore.
“I’m sure I have a younger clientele, one that’s less vaccinated,” he added. His customers tend to be between 18 and 40 years old.
“People who aren’t vaccinated are customers we want to have too,” said Proulx.
Derby Line is in Vermont’s Orleans County. Sixty-four per cent of the county is fully vaccinated.
Between June 10 and July 6, Orleans County only saw one new case in 27 consecutive days.