Loved ones separated by B.C.’s Peace Arch Park closure

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As the sun began to set at Peace Arch Park on June 18, dozens of American residents gathered with their Canadian friends and families to eat, play games or just chat. It was a somber yet heartfelt scene as loved ones clung to each remaining moment before saying a close goodbye for the foreseeable future. 

For many with loved ones across the border, the re-opening of Peace Arch Park in mid-May had been a godsend. With the border closure extended to July 21, meeting at the park allowed separated families, partners and friends to reunite. But amid safety and traffic concerns due to Covid-19, B.C. officials announced they would shut down the Canadian side of the park, effective June 18 at 8 p.m.

The Canadian side, Peace Arch Provincial Park, had been overwhelmed with visitors since it re-opened on May 14, according to a press release from the British Columbia Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. David Karn, a spokesperson for the ministry, said the average attendance at the park in peak months is 500 vehicles. On Sunday, June 14, the vehicle count was nearly 1,000, according to Karn. Visitors have been parking illegally in the Canadian parking lot and along access roads, as well as setting up enclosed tents in the park, adding to “physical distancing and surveillance concerns,” Karn said.  

But according to Blaine immigration attorney Len Saunders, the provincial government’s claims of overcrowding in the park weren’t true. Saunders, who has visited Peace Arch Park several times a week throughout the past month, said neither the park nor the Canadian parking lot were ever overflowing with visitors. 

“It was very well done, people were being mindful. There weren’t parties going on. Yes, you’d see some people having picnics and barbecues, but that’s what the park has been for, for many years,” Saunders said. 

For Blaine resident Aidan Button and his fiancé, Sherri Brake of Langley, B.C., the closure of Peace Arch Park is disappointing to say the least. The couple, who got engaged last year, are in the process of obtaining a K-1 visa for Brake to become a U.S. citizen upon their marriage. Like many cross-border couples, the two visited each other at a ditch on 0 Avenue along the border prior to the re-opening of the park. Since May, however, Button and Brake were able to meet at the park almost every day to picnic and play games. 

With the closure of the Canadian side of the park, the couple feels let down after just beginning to find hope, Brake said. The two plan to continue meeting, once again, at the 0 Avenue ditch. 

“We’re trying to make the most out of it but they’re giving us less and less to work with,” Button said. “It’s been discouraging because there’s no end in sight.”

Though the border is set to re-open on July 21, Saunders believes it will likely be extended again, possibly into next year. As for Peace Arch Provincial Park, the B.C. government “will continue to work with [its] partners and stakeholders to monitor the situation and will re-open the park when it is determined to be safe to do so,” Karn said. 

On June 9, the Canadian government began allowing immediate family members separated by the border to enter Canada. 

Among the conditions of this exemption is a mandatory quarantine for at least 14 days upon arrival. Those who are eligible to enter Canada are required to present a quarantine plan, outlining where they will stay and how they will access essential services. Those who don’t follow their quarantine plan are subject to fines, jail time or can be banned from entering the country for one year. The U.S has not reciprocated the exemption. 

Even with the exemption, the mandatory quarantine still makes seeing family impossible, said B.C. resident Kielah Wood. Wood’s husband and one of their children live in Bellingham while Wood and their other child live in Abbotsford. The couple hasn’t lived on the same side of the border since getting married, but visit each other most weekends. 

What’s frustrating, Wood said, is that her husband cannot take enough time off of work to quarantine upon entering Canada. Additionally, Wood believes the exemption should be mutual because it would be easier for her to travel to the U.S. than her husband to travel into Canada. 

Though the land border is closed, air travel from Canada to the U.S. is not restricted. Any Canadian may fly into the U.S. without having to quarantine upon arrival, with the exception of Hawaii. Wood said she considered flying to Washington state but was worried about exposing her young child to Covid-19 on the plane and in the airport. 

Living in separate countries, Wood said she always knew their relationship would be difficult but never expected a pandemic to shut down the border. Wood said the hardest part is seeing how much her children miss each other but she hopes this experience can be a learning opportunity.  

“I think, if anything, it’s teaching them that you do whatever it takes for your family to be together and overcome any obstacles,” Wood said. 

“I hate to give Covid-19 and the border closure any credit but it’s definitely true, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’” she concluded.

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