Maine border businesses frustrated by extended absence of Canadians

·3 min read
Many businesses in Maine are reliant on cross-border customers to survive. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press - image credit)
Many businesses in Maine are reliant on cross-border customers to survive. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press - image credit)

Hundreds of New Brunswickers normally travel across the U.S. border to Madawaska, Maine for the town's annual Acadian Festival, bringing a big boost to local businesses.

Organizers had been hoping their Canadian neighbours would be able to join from the Edmundston region this year. But with continued travel restrictions — that won't be happening.

Sharon Boucher, the executive director of the St. John Valley Chamber of Commerce, said the loss of nearly 1,000 Canadian visitors is "devastating" to businesses.

"We really thought that both sides would open at the same time," she said.

U.S. officials announced Wednesday the border closure will be extended until at least Aug. 21. In a renewal order, the government said the risk of spread of COVID-19 between the two countries remains too high.

The decision comes only days after the Canadian government announced plans to open its land border to fully vaccinated U.S. citizens on Aug. 9, a move welcomed by many New Brunswick communities.

'It's really hard on everyone'

Many businesses in Maine's St. John River valley are reliant on cross-border customers to survive. Canadians cross to Madawaska for cheaper gas, milk and groceries. Americans go to Edmundston to visit family and shop with a favourable exchange rate.

Boucher said most of the customers at Marden's, the local discount store, are typically from New Brunswick.

"We're so integrated with the Edmundston community that it's really hard on everyone," she said.

Robert Jones/CBC
Robert Jones/CBC

People in Madawaska and Edmundston have close cultural and family ties, resulting in some Canadians choosing to retire on the Maine side of the river. That's been challenging for people receiving a pension in Canadian dollars and forced to spend it in the U.S.

Some businesses have benefited. Furniture and appliance stores have more customers, as a weak Canadian dollar can make a trip across the border enticing for Mainers.

"When you're living in a border town you sort of play the odds of where you're going to get the best deal, and both sides of the border do that," Boucher said.

'Desperate' for an open border

Thousands of packages for Canadian customers are piling up at C & E Feeds in Calais, Maine. It's a feed store that makes most of its revenue as an international package handling facility.

Owner Heather Henry-Tenan said she's "desperate" for the border to open so her family business can bring back staff.

"We just keep consoling them and letting them know that the bridge will be open soon and we'll be right there for them when they're ready," she said.

Canadians have purchases shipped to the store to avoid paying duty and taxes. When the border shut down, its warehouses became packed with everything from car parts to vehicles.

Michael Lawson/Submitted
Michael Lawson/Submitted

At Christmastime, the company started to offer shipping of packages to Canada through the local postal service and brokerage firms.

Henry-Tenan said C & E Feeds has had about 55 new customers over the last few months, as New Brunswickers anticipate the border reopening.

"Canadians are still hanging on and supporting us," she said.

Calais Town Manager Mike Ellis said residents are looking forward to visiting St. Stephen next month, but the decision to keep the U.S. border open is a surprise when New Brunswick's active case count is in the single digits.

"I understand all of the reasoning behind why to keep it closed from Canada's perspective, but I'm not sure why we'd wait over here," he said.

"I don't understand that."

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