Two First Nations women in Ontario say they’ve been harassed by public health staff after being wrongfully flagged under the federal Quarantine Act for crossing the Canada-United States border despite their community being exempt due to its unique geographical situation.
Jessica Kempenich, 31, and her sister Brittany Powassin, 30, are members of Animakee Wa Zhing #37 and live on a portion of the reserve known as Windigo Island, located 52 kilometres south of Kenora, Ont.
Residents must boat from the island to a nearby shoreline in Angle Inlet, Minn., and travel by road back into Canada for necessities like groceries, prescriptions and medical appointments.
They usually use permits from the Canada Border Services Agency’s (CBSA) Remote Area Border Crossing program but since the pandemic and closure of the Canada-United States border to non-essential travel, residents must contact a CBSA Telephone Reporting Centre when crossing the border.
Kempenich said she hadn’t had a problem doing weekly grocery runs until July 30 when she and her sister called in during a trip to Kenora, Ont., for prescriptions and groceries.
She said it’s obvious they’re dealing with agents who are unfamiliar with the area.
“As we were calling in the border agent was just almost harassing us and almost being a jerk to us, asking ‘Well, you guys don’t have a grocery store or pharmacy out there?’ No. I don’t think you know where we live,” she said.
“I don’t know if this border agent was just new or just felt like being a jerk that day.”
After a 20-minute phone call, both had to provide their phone numbers and email addresses to the agent.
The next day, they started receiving messages and calls about needing to self-isolate for 14 days under the Quarantine Act. Maximum penalties for failing to comply with the Quarantine Act include a fine of up to $750,000 and/or imprisonment for six months.
“It’s just really frustrating,” said Kempenich.
“We’re just passing through this little chunk of Minnesota to get back into Canada. If I had the choice, I wouldn’t have anything to do with Minnesota but we don’t have a road.”
Animakee Wa Zhing #37 Chief Jim Major said he received confirmation from CBSA that band members residing on Windigo Island are exempt from any quarantine requirements and since the pandemic started, members have refrained from making any stops in the United States.
“Given the geography in the region, our members have no other option when travelling by vehicle but to briefly travel through the United States. The amount of time spent on the U.S. side of the border is no more than 15 minutes,” said Major in a statement.
“It is really concerning when members have to travel by vehicle to medical appointments and then Canada sends out quarantine orders by email. We have no option but to briefly cross the international border.”
The CBSA said in a statement to CBC News that it does not provide comment related to a specific individual or situation but that quarantine exemptions applicable to residents of Animakee Wa Zhing 37 First Nation allow for regular cross-border travel for work, and to obtain essential goods and services, so long as the residents are asymptomatic.