About 45 minutes south of downtown Vancouver, the border community of Point Roberts, Wash., beckons urban dwellers with its no-Starbucks, no-traffic lights, small-town charm, not to mention its cheap gas, bargain real-estate prices and knockout sunsets.
What truly puts Point Roberts — affectionately called “The Point” by locals — on the map is that it is a cartographic anomaly. Dangling south of the 49th parallel and surrounded by water on three sides, the 12-square-kilometre peninsula is an “exclave.” Its 1,300 full-time residents can only get to the U.S. mainland by car by traipsing through B.C. and across two international checkpoints.
For generations, residents, many of them dual citizens and retirees, have put up with the inconvenience of this quirk of geography, plus the occasional derisive comment comparing Point Roberts to “an orphan problem child” of the United States, as small prices to pay to maintain their safe, sleepy isolation.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Severe border restrictions have essentially choked off Point Roberts, turning it into a “ghost town.” Businesses that depend heavily on Canadian visitors are struggling. More than a handful of Point Roberts parents whose children attend schools in B.C. had to make the gruelling decision to put up their kids in homes on the Canadian side of the border.
Meanwhile, Canadians who own summer cottages in Point Roberts and whose presence, as one owner put it, helps to “bankroll” the peninsula, are fretting; the longer their summer cottages sit empty, the greater the chances of rodent infestations.
Amid ongoing pleas to ease border restrictions, some residents have floated radical ideas, including ceding the unincorporated Whatcom County town to Canada.
Others have suggested turning Point Roberts into a special zone of the U.S., akin to Puerto Rico, or withdrawing from the U.S. to form its own fiefdom — a “PRexit,” if you will.
So how did we get here?
Point Roberts’s status as a fragmented territory was solidified in 1846 with the signing of the Oregon Treaty between the U.S. and Britain, which extended the border west from the Rocky Mountains along the 49th parallel. While many historical accounts have described this outcome as an accident, others say it was a clear-eyed move by the Americans, who saw Point Roberts for its strategic value.
Icelandic settlers arrived in the late 1800s and contributed to thriving commercial fishing and farming industries that lasted for decades. (Long before their arrival, the southeast corner of Point Roberts was home to a First Nations fishing village where the “reef net” salmon fishing technique was invented).
By the middle of the next century, the town developed a more sordid reputation.
Following the end of prohibition in the U.S. in the 1930s, Point Roberts became a popular watering hole, earning the moniker “Sin City” or “Tijuana of the North,” according to local historian Mark Swenson.
Until the mid-1980s, B.C. banned alcohol sales on Sundays, meaning Point Roberts taverns would be flooded with Canadians — as many as 10,000 on Sundays, Swenson says.
Point Roberts also boasted an extremely popular X-rated movie theatre.
While Canadians shelled out money on vices in Point Roberts, they were, for a time, not so willing to share their water with the landlocked community.
According to a 1973 New York Times article, Point Roberts was getting desperate for water, but Canada would pump water only in an emergency.
“At the worst of the crisis, someone erected signs near the border saying ‘Canadians Go Home’ and the water commissioners declared angrily that if Canada would supply it no water, Point Roberts would limit what water it did have to Americans here, cutting off the Canadian residents,” the Times reported.
Eventually, B.C. agreed to supply water and electricity to the community.
At times, Point Roberts has aspired to become a true destination town. In 1986, the Los Angeles Times touted it as a “world-class resort waiting to blossom.”
But even though it got a golf course and a marina and has attracted Chinese investors, a few Hollywood celebrities and professional athletes, it remains sparsely developed. Forests, hiking trails and unspoiled beaches providing front-row seats to orca pods abound.
Today, one of its biggest industries is rather humdrum: parcel receiving. Canadians who do a lot of online shopping but don’t want to pay hefty international shipping fees can register with one of the half-dozen parcel depots in Point Roberts and have packages delivered there.
One might assume that, as director of the Point Roberts Chamber of Commerce, Brian Calder would put a sunny spin on the impact COVID-19-related border restrictions have had on the local economy.
But the picture, he says, is grim.
“You can’t overstate the dilemma and the problem we’ve got.”
The Banner Bank branch is shutting down in December. The marina, equipped with 800 stalls, has about 200 boats. And the handful of restaurants have scaled back their hours. (They include the Kiniski Reef, a pub/restaurant owned by Nick Kiniski, son of legendary Canadian wrestler Gene Kiniski, that features some of the family’s wrestling memorabilia.)
“It’s like a ghost town compared to what we’re used to,” Calder says.
His concerns were affirmed by a survey of businesses by Western Washington University’s Border Policy Research Institute. Businesses reported making 50 to 100 per cent less revenue compared to the pre-pandemic period; two-thirds said 80 per cent of their customers come from Canada.
“Who can say with any certainty that all the Canadians are coming back?” Calder wonders.
Business owners aren’t the only ones hurting. A number of families whose children attend school in Canada have had to uproot themselves in the face of border regulations.
Point Roberts has a primary school that goes up to Grade 3. Prior to the pandemic, older children crossed the border daily to attend classes in B.C. or Washington State. For much of the summer, parents were under the impression that routine would continue.
But mid-August, Point Roberts’s local newspaper, the All Point Bulletin, shared an email from the Public Health Agency of Canada with bad news for the roughly 30 students who attend school in Canada.
“Students crossing the border to attend school on a daily basis are not exempt from the 14-day quarantine period,” it said.
Many Point Roberts parents scrambled to find accommodations in Canada for their kids.
Rena Andreoli was among them.
“Every family here was so stripped down to the core emotionally and spiritually,” she says. “What the hell do you do?”
Andreoli and her husband, both dual citizens, found friends in Canada who agreed to put up their 16-year-old daughter so she could continue attending high school in Delta, B.C.
“It was very hard on us emotionally. The day when I was packing her stuff into the car, (my husband) had a complete breakdown. I literally had to wait for him to stop crying so we could say goodbye and I could bring her over the border,” she recalls.
“Even when I speak to you now, I think about that day. ‘Oh my God,’ we were thinking. ‘What the hell are we doing? This is not Nazi Germany.’”
Greg Heppner, a Point Roberts real estate agent, says his family was also cleaved in two. His oldest son was already planning to move out of the house to attend the University of British Columbia. But then his wife and youngest son decided to move to Vancouver so he could attend Vancouver College, a private Catholic high school.
“You’re being forced to uproot yourself and go live in another country and can’t even go back home,” he says. “If they do, they have to quarantine all over.”
Meanwhile, Canadians who own property in Point Roberts have a different worry — a looming winter and inability to reach their cottages.
“I feel like part of my heart has been taken out. I miss it so much,” says Jana Walker, a resident of Ladner, B.C., pausing to catch her emotions.
Pre-pandemic, Walker would visit the cottage she’s owned for more than 30 years just about every weekend and unwind in a hammock in her sunset-facing backyard pergola.
“My home in Point Roberts is my rejuvenation … it fills me up spiritually.”
There is one costly, laborious option that some B.C. residents in this predicament have taken: fly into Washington State and then take a small plane to Point Roberts.
Walker was booked to do such a trip, but it was cancelled due to smoke from the summer wildfires.
While many homeowners have found people to mow their lawns and pick up mail, they say they really need access to Point Roberts now to winterize their homes, including shutting off water and gas and cleaning the gutters.
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“You get mice in your house — once one gets in others follow. What do you do?” says Vancouver resident Robert Cannon, another Point Roberts property owner.
The last time he was there he discovered bats had invaded his chimney, adding to his concern.
Because Cannon is a dual citizen, he can drive across the border. But what is stopping him is the mandatory two-week quarantine upon his return.
“Even though I’d only go to my property, not talk to anybody, not see anyone, just look after the house, get back in the car, cross the border, I have to quarantine for two weeks.”
Residents on both sides of the border have held rallies and sent letters to try to convince government leaders to ease the restrictions and create some kind of controlled entry/exit system.
In August, Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington state, wrote directly to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau citing “unique hardships” facing Washingtonians in Point Roberts to access schools and services. He suggested a special “transit pass” be given to Point Roberts residents, similar to the one issued to U.S. citizens travelling by car to Alaska from the U.S. mainland.
Inslee’s press secretary, Mike Faulk, told the Star this month while the Canadian government came out with new guidelines allowing compassionate access for U.S. citizens in family emergencies, many issues remain, including “access for students who attend schools in Canada and access to Point Roberts for Canadian homeowners.”
In an email, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, said, “The situation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rapidly evolve, and we have been clear that our response will adapt in lock step. Going forward, we will continue to evaluate the best public health information available to us to make a decision on when and how to reopen our border.”
Enter John Lesow.
Before a global pandemic was declared, Lesow, a dual citizen in North Vancouver who previously spent 23 years in Point Roberts, appeared before the Whatcom County council with an audacious idea. Put a question to all county voters in the November general election: Do you support initiating formal discussions between the U.S. and Canada regarding the purchase of Point Roberts?
“The United States and Canada border crossing is an unnecessary and costly expense that has strangled Point Roberts for years and should be eliminated,” he told the council members, who remained stoic throughout his presentation.
“The purchase of the Point by Canada and the conferring of the benefits of dual citizenship on the 1,000 residents living in Point Roberts, including access to Canadian public schools and health care, would be a practical first step toward a bright future for Americans living on the Point.”
To bolster his argument, Lesow noted that politicians in Ottawa had put forward serious proposals over the years to annex the Turks and Caicos Islands southeast of the Bahamas.
But a review of the parliamentary record shows they were mostly periodic musings. (In 1974, NDP MP Max Saltsman introduced a private member’s bill to examine forging a union with the islands. Until his retirement in 2015, Conservative MP Peter Goldring was an ardent cheerleader for taking over the islands, once telling a reporter: “Canada really needs a Hawaii. The United States has a Hawaii. Why can’t Canada have a Hawaii?” As recently as 2016, the idea of turning the islands into Canada’s 11th province was on the list of discussion items at the NDP convention).
Lesow told the Star his bid to fold Point Roberts into Canada lost a bit of momentum due to the pandemic, but he is keen to keep the discussion alive.
He’s even thrown out a suggested purchase price: $5 billion.
“If you look at Labrador and Newfoundland, they became part of Canada in 1949. Look at the U.S. — the Louisiana Purchase, the Alaska Purchase — this happens all the time. Just because it hasn’t happened recently doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen to Point Roberts,” he says.
It’s an idea that resonates with Vancouver’s John Tognetti, chairman of Haywood Securities brokerage firm. He’s owned a water-facing property in Point Roberts since 1976, a place he calls his “sanctuary.”
“The greatest thing that could happen to Point Roberts is that it gets given to Canada. You could build an incredible place down there,” he says.
“To resolve all the issues these poor people are having to go through and to resolve the issues Canadian property owners are having to go through, either they step up and help or step out and sell it.”
Tognetti says he has no doubt Vancouver’s big developers would pounce.
“You’d get all the big companies that’d buy it in 30 seconds. You and I could hold an auction at the beer parlour,” he says.
“Let’s make a deal and pay every citizen there a million bucks. They’ll get it back in real estate in a heartbeat.”
For those lukewarm to hitching up with Canada, Calder, the chamber of commerce director, has drafted a few of his own ideas.
“We could PREXIT and form our own fiefdom,” he says.
“We could apply for U.S. protectorate status from the federal government” — perhaps a similar arrangement to that of Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa.
Or, he says it could become an “immigration-neutral zone” like nearby Peace Arch Park, an international park that straddles the B.C. and Washington state border. “Citizens of both countries would be free to mingle in that zone without immigration interference.
“A solution to our problems requires a completely new approach,” he says.
“It is time to … develop a backbone.”
David Rossiter, a Western Washington University geography professor, says selling Point Roberts to Canada would be a huge undertaking. The question would likely have to be put on a ballot and get popular support from residents in Washington state.
B.C. would obviously have to indicate an interest and probably be on the financial hook for it.
“I have to say my initial reaction to the purchase idea is to laugh and say there’s no chance this will happen … at least, not in my lifetime,” he says, especially given the vigilance over border security after 9/11.
“Pie in the sky,” adds Patrick Buckley, another professor at Western Washington. “After you sell us Baffin Island and Denmark sells us Greenland, I think someone would consider selling Point Roberts — or better yet, how about a swap for Vancouver Island?”
Faulk, the Washington governor’s press secretary, says his office has “never discussed a sale of Point Roberts — I don’t even know how that would work, to be honest — and would not consider it given the interests of Point Roberts residents.”
A spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office declined to say if Canada would entertain the idea of annexing Point Roberts.
If it ever were to go to a vote, the idea would likely face stiff resistance from Point Roberts residents.
“Point Roberts is an anomaly, a gem, a rough and tumble, yet pristine, peninsula that represents the ideals of a life from another era,” says Andreoli.
“It is a little slice of rural America where time has stood still for the most part. We like it that way.”
There undoubtedly will be some residents wooed by the prospect of a big pay day, says Heppner, the real estate agent.
“I know a lot of people think, ‘Oh that would be kind of cool. Then my property values would go way up. I could sell my house and make a fortune.’”
But, in reality, “most people think it’s silly.”
First, he says, the U.S. doesn’t give up territory. Next, think about all the workers who’d have to get relicensed to work in Canada. And all the developers who’d swoop in and obliterate the quaint charm.
Think of the crime.
“It wouldn’t be crime-free like it is now because we’re not surrounded by three sides on water and armed border guards at the gate.”
Point Roberts’s role as a bridge between Canada and the U.S. is the core of its being, says Swenson, the local historian.
“This is American territory. Americans fought for it, decided they wanted it, negotiated for it, and it’s still strategic to this day,” he says.
“Right now, it might be sleepy and maybe that’s the best thing for Point Roberts, but it has potential that’s untapped and that shouldn’t be traded away lightly.”
Douglas Quan is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dougquan
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