The crowd was a bit weak, but their message was strong. . . they want the Canada-U.S. border crossing at Big Beaver/Whitetail to remain open!
Residents from the Canadian border communities of Big Beaver, Bengough, Coronach, and more, along with residents from the American communities of Outlook, Whitetail, Flaxville, Scobey and beyond gathered at the Big Beaver Community Hall to support the Not Our Port of Entry (N.O.P.E.) committee.
Lee Cook, who farms in Bengough and Flaxville along with Sharon Nickolson who farms at Big Beaver formed N.O.P.E. and organized the meeting to give local people a chance to speak their minds about the scheduled closing of the Big Beaver/Whitetail border crossing in April of 2011.
Cook and Nickolson attracted a number of politicians, although they were disappointed that no one from the provincial government, nor Canada Border Services were in attendance.
Nickolson said, “I am reluctant to see the port of Big Beaver closed, I don’t think they have really given us relevant reason as to why it is being closed and we’ve had no representation from Canada Border Services at all. I wanted them to be here tonight so they could hear what we feel. We need to look at the next 5-10 years, the oil, the culture that is in this area.”
In attendance from the U.S.: Julie French, Montana State House of Representatives and Senator John Brenden, both from Scobey; from Great Falls, Montana, a representative of Denny Rehberg, Montana Congressman.
From Canada: Ed Komarnicki, MP Souris-Moose Mountain; Kim Trew, NDP MLA Regina-Coronation Park, representing Dwain Lingenfelter, leader of the opposition and two members of the Canadian Integrated Border Enforcement Teams (IBETs), a multi-agency law enforcement team created by Canadian and U.S. federal agencies.
Following a free pork supper, Lee Cook invited a number of people to the podium to share their feeling about the planned border closing.
Warren Volke, a quiet well-spoken farmer from Big Beaver, shared how the crossing the border has always been a part of his life, whether for business or social reasons. Volke believes that although the population is sparse in the areas north and south of the border, the residents deserve services. “That gives people dignity, to have equivalent services,” Volke said to the crowd. Volke remains optimistic that the decision can be changed, relating to the story of the planned closure of the Big Beaver Post Office more than 25 years ago. At that time, people voiced their concerns, the decision was overturned and the people of the Big Beaver area still have the service of a post office.
Many people talked about mail service that will be lost to residents that live North of the border that currently have internet purchases mailed or delivered to Whitetail. Volke reported that 30% of Whitetail post office boxes belong to Canadians, who in turn share the box with friends. As well, he reported that many Canadians have parcels delivered to Columbia Grain in Whitetail. He believes these services add value and dignity to residents’ lives.
Volke shared his belief that a system, like the CanPass system, an after hours, pre-approved card system that operated at the Coronach/Scobey port for a number of years, prior to 9/11, would work at the Big Beaver/Whitetail crossing to save costs and keep the border open to local traffic.
Bengough residents Lois Giraudier and Barb Pratt voiced their concerns from a tourism (Gateway Festival) and personal viewpoint (box office and parcel drop off).
Ron Aust, owner of the Aust’s Store in Big Beaver, talked about his U.S. customers that travel to his store to pick up niche items such as seafood, Robin Hood flour and licorice. He, like many others, voiced his concerns that closing the border now, is bad timing. “This part of the province is coming alive with all of the oil. . . why take a step backwards.” Ardelle Hart, from Outlook, Montana agreed, “We are on the verge of one of the biggest oil developments in years.”
Don Kirby, from the Transportation Advisory Committee for the area echoed their feelings. “Our fathers and grandfathers built these two great countries and I think we have sat back on our haunches and let our schools, hospitals, railroads and roads erode.” Kirby was happy to see residents from many communities, as well as two countries, meet to work together. He said, “I just think it’s a good thing if communities can work together to preserve the services together. There are two different countries working together, so why can’t the powers that be understand what the locals are giving up.”
One, after another, residents from both sides of the border shared their stories, all with a common theme. Residents believe they are entitled to the same services and security as everyone else and they believe the timing is bad with the boom in the oil industry.
Cook read a number of letters from businesses that operate on the North side of the border, each protesting the closure of the port.
Kim Trew, NDP MLA, brought greetings from the Saskatchewan Provincial Opposition Party. Trew agreed with one suggestion that the port be operated jointly between the Canadian and U.S. border services to decrease costs.
The last speaker before the open mike session was Ed Komarnicki, MP for Souris-Moose Mountain. Prior to the meeting, he said, “I am here to hear people out and listen to what they have to say. I know a lot of times, decisions are made purely on statistics and numbers but it is good to know what people on the ground have to say, how they are affected and what they are doing. My job here is to listen to what they have to say, to forward those comments directly to the minister involved and certainly I will carry the message forward from here. . . directly to the minster. I know Canada Border Services have made a decision to close, it’s based primarily on numbers and economics and the amount of traffic that goes through the port.
Komarnicki reported that the numbers have been decreasing over the years and Canada Border Services believe the ports at Regway and Coronach are a good option for the local residents. “But obviously it would be an inconvenience to the same people that use it.
The big question is the dollars and is it something that Canada Border Services should be spending to keep that port open and that service open”.
The U.S. government recently halted a multi-million dollar upgrade to the U.S. side after receiving news that the Canadian government planned to close the Big Beaver port. When Julie French, Montana’s state representative French took her turn at the podium she suggested the U.S. and Canadian officials work together. “My hope is that we can keep the port open by sitting down, governments, both state and federal and border agencies and coming up with a workable solution.” Said French following the meeting.
Komarnicki agreed that the two governments (U.S. and Canadian) need to better communicate. “One side spending and one side closing doesn’t make sense,” Komarnicki said to the group.
French said, “this goes beyond thickening of the border, it’s closing of the border and our economies of our small communities rely on the smooth transportation back and forth, we need transportation outlets for economic growth.”
Gloria Simpson, from Bengough shared her feelings about the meeting, “I think the meeting went pretty well, but I was disappointed in the local ‘turn out’ to a meeting to discuss something so crucial to our area. The people, on both sides of the border, who spoke with passion and from the heart, made some great points - but I do not have much faith that the CANADIAN politicians, who were there, will carry that passion, or the points, on to the next level. I think we all have to write our own letters and by-pass this level of Government ... they just smile and look important but they really are only ‘yes men’ and carry no real weight.”
Organizers handed over petitions with over 300 signatures for Komarnicki to present to the Minister in charge. Time will tell if the meeting or the petitions will change the previous decision to close the port.
Komarnicki spoke to Kathy Gudnason of the Deep South Star following the meeting and promised an answer in two weeks about the future of the port.