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With Canada’s border restrictions still in place, Northwest Angle remains off limits to tourists

As COVID-19 restrictions lift in much of the U.S., business owners in this isolated part of the U.S. remain hobbled by the closure of the Canadian border. As one resident put it, “the rest of the country’s opening up and we’re getting robbed of more of our lives.”

The northernmost point of the contiguous United States — home to around 120 permanent residents — has remained cut off from the rest of the country throughout the pandemic.

When Minnesota first started going into lockdown at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Paul Colson, the owner of Jake’s Northwest Angle resort, was confident that people would be able to start returning to his summer getaway spot by August.

But the northernmost point of the contiguous United States — home to around 120 permanent residents — remained cut off from the rest of the country throughout the pandemic. Last March, Canada closed its border with the U.S. in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19. Minnesota’s Northwest Angle, which is reachable from the rest of the state only by driving through Canada or crossing Lake of the Woods, suddenly became one of the most inaccessible areas in the country.

Canada announced last week that it will keep many of its border restrictions in place through June, but Northwest Angle residents traveling to the U.S. mainland can now avoid pre- and post- travel COVID-19 testing.

Residents say the testing change is a small relief. But in an area where the economy is built almost entirely on fishing tourism, they also say it’s not enough.

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“We’re all under house arrest,” said Colson, a resident of the Northwest Angle. “We have to ask a foreign government when we can leave, how we can leave, how long we can be gone, yada yada yada. We’re not allowed visitors. It’s been going on for 15 months… the rest of the country’s opening up and we’re getting robbed of more of our lives.”

A quick history

Looking at Minnesota’s Northwest Angle, one would think the 123 square miles of land should logically be part of Canada.

As odd as it may seem, the Northwest Angle was created as part of treaty negotiations with Great Britain in the 18th century: During the Treaty of Paris (1783) Great Britain agreed to a U.S.-Canada border from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. Once the border line was west of Lake Superior, it was to run along a stream to the northwesternmost point of Lake of the Woods, and then due west to the Mississippi river.

Unfortunately, the diplomats were mistaken in their knowledge of Minnesota-area geography. First of all, there was no obvious northwesternmost point of Lake of the Woods. Second, the northernmost part of the Mississippi River was south of Lake of the Woods.

A view of the Northwest Angle from the Landsat 8, an American Earth observation satellite.
A view of the Northwest Angle from the Landsat 8, an American Earth observation satellite.
The existence of the Northwest Angle was confirmed by a joint American-British surveying commission which created the first accurate and detailed map of Lake of the Woods around the year 1824. In 1842, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty was signed and the U.S. and Great Britain agreed on the boundaries that shaped the Northwest Angle. Surveyors made some more geographic calculations in the years to come, during which both Great Britain and Canada attempted to eliminate the Northwest Angle by buying the land from the U.S. Despite a lack of great economic value, the U.S. government rejected efforts to buy the Angle, not wanting to change anything in the treaty under which they gained their independence from Great Britain. Since 1925, a joint U.S.-Canada boundary commission has maintained the boundary at the Northwest Angle.

About 60 percent of the land in the Angle peninsula belongs to the Red Lake Band of Chippewa.

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U.S. makes progress

There had not been much drama between the U.S. and Canada over the Northwest Angle since the original boundary dispute. That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic threw almost every aspect of normal life into disarray.

Canada banned U.S. citizens from entering the country unless they qualified under some strict guidelines, like having an immediate family member in Canada or being authorized by the Public Health Agency of Canada to travel there for “compassionate reasons.”

Angle residents could venture into Canada to get groceries or seek medical treatment, but the real trouble came when anyone needed to travel to the mainland U.S. To cross the border, Angle residents were required to provide proof of pre- and post-travel COVID-19 testing. The testing itself was a huge impediment to residents who wanted to get back to the U.S. — Colson said residents were required to get a negative molecular COVID-19 test that could not be more than three days old. That capability was not available at the health clinics that were close to the border, Colson said. They were stuck.

On May 18, 2021, Minnesotan Sen. Amy Klobuchar chaired the Canada-U.S. Interparliamentary Group Meeting between 10 U.S. senators and 14 Canadian Parliamentarians. During that meeting, Klobuchar and other senators urged Canada to ease border restrictions, especially for Northwest Angle residents.

As a result of the meetings with Canadian parliament, Canada announced Friday that it would scrap the pre- and post- travel testing for Angle residents.

“The government of Canada takes a prudent and responsible approach at the border, by continually monitoring and reviewing available data and scientific evidence to protect the health and safety of Canadians,” said a press release distributed by the Public Health Agency of Canada. “To address unique situations along the Canada-U.S. border…residents of Northwest Angle, Minnesota, traveling by car through Canada to mainland U.S., will be exempt from pre- and post-arrival testing.”

Klobuchar called Canada’s new loosened restrictions “an important step in the right direction” but that the U.S. and Canada “must continue to work to get cross-border travel back to normal” as more vaccines are distributed.

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This was a relief for some Angle residents, but not enough to help the Angle economy recover: Nonresident tourists are still subject to all the same restrictions as before. Under these restrictions, non-Canadian tourists are not allowed to enter the country.

Rep. Michelle Fischbach, who represents Minnesota’s 7th District that spans along the border with the Dakotas and includes a large swath of the northern border, including the Northwest Angle, said that she was pleased with Canada’s decision to relax restrictions on Angle residents.

“But while this is indeed progress,” Rep. Fischbach said, “the border remains closed to non-resident travel — and nothing short of a full border reopening can begin to mitigate the many negative effects of the indefinite border closure on Northwest Angle lives and livelihoods. I will continue to aggressively pursue a solution.”

In February, Fischbach, along with Republican Reps. Pete Stauber and Tom Emmer, sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to work with Canadian authorities to reopen a 40-mile road connecting the mainland U.S. to the Angle for residents and tourists.

The representatives sent the letter in advance of a meeting between President Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. No change to border restrictions occurred immediately after this meeting.

Canadian border restrictions were set to expire Friday, May 21, but have been extended another month with a new expiration date of June 21. Canadian officials have not named the conditions needed for a full reopening of the border.

“Until the conditions on both sides of the border change very substantively, the measures at our borders will remain intact,” James Cudmore, director of communications for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, said in an email to Canadian broadcaster CTV News.

Still not enough

If you visit the webpage of Colson’s resort, just under the “Welcome to Jake’s Northwest Angle” message is another in all-caps, red letters: “IT IS NOT POSSIBLE TO DRIVE TO JAKE’S THROUGH CANADA AT THIS TIME!”

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This has been the struggle for Jake’s and other Northwest Angle resorts throughout the pandemic. Without that road through the Manitoba wilderness, tourists can only reach the resort through the rare flying service or by boat.

People who stay at Jake’s are usually there for fishing, so it would seem that crossing the lake on a boat wouldn’t be a big deal. But Lake of the Woods is huge. It runs 85 miles long and 56 miles wide at its widest point, and has an area of 1,727 square miles. It’s the seventh largest freshwater lake located (at least partially) in the U.S., right after the five Great Lakes and Great Salt Lake in Utah. Fifty miles of water lay in between mainland Minnesota and Jake’s, 30 of which are over completely open water, meaning you can’t see land in any direction.

“You would not take a normal boat across,” Colson said. “You’d have to take a 30-foot boat across and the wind gets to probably 20, 25 miles per hour.”

This is a deterrent for fishing tourists, including Bob Anderson from Altoona, Wisconsin, who has been traveling to areas in Canada including the Northwest Angle for the last 30 or so years.

“The border being closed puts a damper on things,” Anderson said. At 72 years old, Anderson said he’s the youngest member of his fishing group of three that had driven to the Northwest Angle for years before the pandemic. He said that they wouldn’t be able to take their own boat across Lake of the Woods, which they prefer to use for fishing once they get to the resort.

“This year we were thinking about taking the charter…but in our case, the three of us made a decision to hold off until later in the fall and hopefully the border will be open,” Anderson said.

For resort owners like Colson, this is yet another consequence of what they call Canada’s ignorance of the area. Colson said last summer his revenue was down 80 to 85 percent, and that he’s not crunched the numbers too accurately since then because “it’s a little too depressing.”

“You know, we spent our lives building up this resort,” Colson said. “This is not like something you can just open up, right, you have to have a relationship with people, and we’re losing those relationships. So even if the road would open up tomorrow, it’s gonna take me years to even get back to where I was before last June. It would have been the best June I’ve ever had in my life. And we feel it was stolen from us.”

Anderson said he feels for resort owners like Colson, and was disappointed to hear that they were losing huge amounts of business over the last year.

“It’s not us versus Canadians, it’s Minnesotans not being able to make a living because they can’t get their customers up there,” Anderson said.