At first it was just a social media rumor: though the Canada/U.S. border is closed to non-essential travel, some travelers were believed to be using a loophole to gain entry into Canada. License plates from several U.S. states including Texas, Utah, Washington, Arizona, and California had been spotted in tourism hot spots. While on the waterways, U.S.-flagged vessels had been showing up in remote coastal communities where they’re the object of fear.
The rumor was confirmed when a group of Americans showed up in Banff, Alberta, a couple weeks ago. According to local police, a complaint was filed when a group of four diners from Texas stopped in to a restaurant and told their server they weren’t actually going to Alaska, but were having a vacation. In Banff, the RCMP have issued a half-dozen tickets to Americans, and numerous complaints had been lodged with local government after residents spotted more and more American plates.
As the RCMP began looking for and ticketing Americans in Banff, another wayward U.S.-plated vehicle was spotted. This time a couple from Arizona showed up in a campground in Golden, British Columbia. The couple told campground owners Joy Guyot and Michelle Nagydeak they’d crossed into Canada and were on their way home to Alaska. The thing was, according to Google Maps, the trip through picturesque Golden added more than eight hours of driving time to a direct trip to Alaska.
Guyot and Nagydeak reported the couple as soon as they realized they were violating COVID-19 rules. Now the couple is isolated in one corner of the campground, where they are required to undergo a 14-day quarantine at their own expense.
The Canadian/U.S. border is currently closed until at least July 21. Since March 21, when the enhanced border measures were put in place, only essential and commercial travel has been permitted to cross. There are a few exemptions, and one, referred to cheekily as the Alaska Loophole, is garnering a lot of negative attention in western Canada.
“Healthy, non-symptomatic foreign nationals, traveling through Canada for non-discretionary purposes, such as to return home to Alaska, may transit through Canada,” says a statement from Judith Gadbois St-Cyr, Canada Border Services Agency spokesperson. But travelers to Alaska are supposed to go directly there. They aren’t supposed to make any unnecessary stops and they’re to avoid restaurants, hotels and contact with others while in transit.
This means people trying to get to, or from, Alaska are permitted to travel through British Columbia and Alberta, but they can’t hang out and have a holiday. But recently, some through-travelers and would-be visitors realized that once they were in Canada, their actions weren’t monitored. And on notice boards and travel chat groups, news of a loophole that meant you could still vacation in Canada, if you said you were going to Alaska, began to spread.
Meanwhile, as the provinces began coming out of lockdown, news of these U.S.-flagged vessels and self-identified tourists, including the four diners in Banff and the couple from Arizona, began raising questions about the efficacy of border checks.
Since pandemic restrictions were imposed, 6,615 Americans trying to visit Canada for non-essential purposes, including sightseeing, shopping and recreation were turned back. But on an average sample day (June 14, 2020) 5,595 non-commercial vehicles did manage to cross into Canada (compared to 212,426 on June 16, 2019).
St-Cyr’s statement points out that there are legitimate reasons for U.S. residents, U.S.-plated vehicles or U.S.-flagged vessels to be in the country—such as essential workers, or as immediate family members to Canadians, or for transiting to Alaska—so the Canadian public needn’t jump to conclusions. But currently, the worry is running high.
Chad and Carolyn Carvey, know this all too well. They were already in Canada aboard their sailboat Walk On when the lockdown was put in place. The couple had planned to spend the summer sailing up the Inside Passage, the 930 miles of protected waterways running from Puget Sound to Skagway, Alaska. Along the way they planned to spend time in B.C.’s small coastal communities, enjoying the culture, wildlife and abundant seafood.
Instead, as mild Canadian tempers begin to flare at the thought of U.S. visitors flaunting the rules, Carvey notices that rather than being treated as welcome tourists, they’ve become objects of suspicion.
“We have a strange status—we can travel like Canadians, but we’re American,” says Carvey. “Locals have been giving us the cold shoulder. Not that I blame them.” He thinks the Canadians they encounter assume they are transiting B.C. waters illegally. Their unique legal status adds to the confusion.
In Canada, there have been just over 100,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 8225 deaths, while in B.C. there have been a reported 2775 cases and 168 deaths. The provincial health minister Adrian Dix says B.C.’s relatively low numbers have been thanks to cooperative social and emotional sacrifices on the part of the population. In a recent press conference he offered a warning to would-be visitors who want to take advantage of a COVID-19 free vacation destination.
“If people are misleading people at the border then there can very likely be consequences for that and I would advise anyone even contemplating such a thing to give their head a shake and not do it because it doesn’t make sense and they put at risk in some respects their ability to visit our country in the future,” Dix said.
Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chimed in on the concerns,
“We’ve heard those reports over the last few days and are looking into them,” he said. “As we continue the conversation with Americans and are shifting and adjusting in certain ways, we need to ensure we’re doing everything necessary to keep Canadians safe at this important time.”
The statement from Canada Border Services Agency outlines the consequences; “If you provide false immigration information or false information about the purpose of your travel, you may be denied entry and/or be banned from returning to Canada.” Offenses can lead to up to $750,000 in fines, and 6 months of prison; or $1,000,000 in fines, and imprisonment of up to 3 years if you’re found to have infected someone with COVID-19.
For the Carveys, they decided to continue their journey to Alaska with some modifications. They’ve stocked up on three months of food and fuel so they can avoid entering coastal communities and are spending their time in isolated anchorages. So far they haven’t spotted any fugitive Americans who are skirting the rules, but they’ve heard reports that the boats are out there.
“Canadians are so nice and polite they don’t really say anything,” says Carvey. A few have asked how the couple has been allowed to keep exploring a province when even Destination BC, the regional tourism board, has asked visitors to confine their travel to virtual dreaming, but most people have just offered good wishes. “We’ve been given advice on anchorages and other places to visit,” says Carvey who doesn’t think anyone has reported them to the Border Services Agency-yet.
“We’re aware we make people nervous, though—and if things change, we’ll head straight to the Alaska border and come back another time.”