Alaskan sisters beg Canada to let them go to school in B.C.

It’s back to school this week for students in Stewart, B.C., but five Alaskan children who were set to join them this year are stuck at home after pandemic restrictions have essentially closed the border between two remote cross-border communities that sit side by side and usually intermingle.

Right now, people are only allowed to cross the border between Hyder, Alaska and Stewart, B.C., for essential travel or they must abide by two-week quarantine requirements.

For two American sisters that means no school as the only one in Hyder just shut down due to low enrolment.

So, Hilma and Ellie Korpela — though sad to lose their favourite teacher Ms. Tiffany — were all set to start classes at a new school on Sept. 10 just across the border in Stewart, B.C.

Bear Valley School is the only school near them, and the Americans’ attendance had been approved by Coast Mountains School Board District 82.

‘I just want to go to school, I’ve been so bored’

The girls say they were looking forward to meeting their new teacher.

“That’s the one thing that I want most, besides the border being opened,” said eight-year-old Ellie Korpela.

But when their B.C. friends headed off to class, they couldn’t because of COVID-19 border rules in place since March 21. Any American who crosses into Stewart, B.C., must self-isolate for 14 days, which precludes the sisters from joining their Canadian classmates.

The pandemic restrictions have caused a myriad of problems for the two towns where people often own land or work on either side. Only three teenagers live in Hyder, so many were cut off from friends in Stewart.

“I feel sad I can’t join [my friends]. I just want to go to school. I’ve been so bored,” said 10-year-old Hilma Korpela.

Hilma Korpela, 10, lives in Hyder, Alaska, but was slated to start Grade 5 in Stewart, B.C., this week with her friends. COVID-19 changed that. (Submitted by Nick Korpela)

Their father, Nick Korpela, works in Canada on a work permit and pays Canadian taxes. He’s in the midst of trying to buy a house in Stewart and filed permanent residency applications to move the family there, but the pandemic has also stalled this process.

He said it’s difficult to see his vibrant daughters so disappointed and unable to start Grade 3 and Grade 5.

“Yeah, it’s a bummer,” said Hilma, who misses playing hockey and hanging out with her friends. She said it’s been a struggle during the lockdown with so few children on the Hyder side of the border.

She spends a lot of time with her younger sister who loves reading and doing art and woodwork. The pair are close, but also very different and they miss their respective friends.

“I’m trying not to get on Ellie’s bad side,” said Hilma. “We are trying not to get too angry with each other.”

Committee proposes cross-border bubble

A group of adults rallied Friday to try to press Canada to let the Alaskan students join their classmates.

They’ve been pushing for months to get Canadian Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to allow some sort of cross-border “bubble” so the two communities can interact as normal during the pandemic.

This satellite image shows the proximity of Hyder, Alaska, bottom left, to Stewart, B.C. (Google Maps)

 “Doesn’t Mr. Blair know we’re all alone here?” asked Hilma.

The Hyder-Stewart action committee has proposed a joint partnership between the two towns that they call the Bear Bubble, which would allow residents to cross the Stewart point of entry without limits.

The arrangement has been endorsed by Canadian MPs Taylor Bachrach and Jack Harris, Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski, Governor Mike Dunleavy and Alaska State Legislature Representative Dan Ortiz. 

A group of people who live in the tiny communities of Hyder, Alaska, and Stewart, B.C., rallied Sept. 11 to urge Canada’s public safety minister to allow Alaskan children to attend the only school in the area, which is located in British Columbia. (Carly Ackerman/Hyder AK & Stewart BC Covid Action committee)

“Five children from Hyder were taught a harsh life lesson in disappointment and bureaucracy,” the committee members wrote in a Thursday news release. 

“The COVID-19 border restrictions that have locked down residents of Hyder for 173 days don’t allow for children to cross the border into Stewart for school, which the Government of Canada has not deemed an essential reason for travel.”

The committee says it has reached out repeatedly to the Canadian government. CBC contacted Bill Blair on Friday.

So far, Canadian officials have not responded. 

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