Meet the American business owners who became a makeshift help desk for ArriveCAN users

The owners of the popular Ryden’s Border Store, located just past the Pigeon River border crossing connecting Ontario and Minnesota, knew they would have to adapt their business during the pandemic, but they never thought they would become an ArriveCAN help desk.

Over the last two years, Mike and Sam Boomer were forced to lay off staff and expand their space as parcels piled up, waiting to be picked up by Canadian patrons. But in the last several months, they’ve been helping more travelers navigate the federal government’s mandatory public health platform.

“They just come in, we basically sometimes just take their phone, do it [the ArriveCAN app work] for them… it’s really exploded and we’re really doing, we’re doing quite a few a day. It’s building great rapport too, I think for us,” said Sam, who owns Ryden’s Border Store in Grand Portage, Minn., with her husband Mike.

“Yeah, we’ve taken something that’s kind of negative and turned it into a positive,” added Mike.

People must use ArriveCAN to provide mandatory travel and public health information, including uploading their vaccine information, before and after entry into Canada.

However, on Tuesday, CBC News confirmed that the government is now leaning towards making changes, such as making the use of the ArriveCAN platform optional by the end of this month, and dropping the vaccine requirement for people entering Canada.

While multiple sources said Ottawa is “likely” to drop these mandatory requirements by Sept. 30, they added the proposal has not been given a final sign-off by the prime minister.

‘It’s almost like Canada doesn’t want visitors’

Sam said she’s “very surprised” the Canadian government held onto the ArriveCAN platform for this long.

“It’s almost like Canada doesn’t want visitors and it’s very frustrating,” she said.

“So the border opened April 1, and we really thought it would be great guns and it was a little bit lackluster. The Americans are coming back. We are still not seeing as many Canadians as we normally would.”

“We saw a lot of Americans just ready to go … especially highly motivated Americans who had camps or who had outfitters trips that they had booked years ago that, you know, they were waiting to go to the Lac des Mille Lacs, Nipigon area,” added Mike.

Ryden’s Border Store has been in business since 1947, and is a popular stop for international travelers. (Facebook/Ryden’s Border Store)

Mike said the recurring issues with navigating the ArriveCAN app seemed to impact the elderly the most, noting some people don’t have a smartphone or even an email account they could use to fill out the form.

“Just this morning, I had a gentleman that came down from Canada, and he and his wife are elderly. They usually come down two or three times a month. They haven’t been down since April because they had a negative experience with the ArriveCan app,” he shared.

Mike said staff at Ryden’s Border Store will help people create email accounts and allow them to use their Wi-Fi, for instance, to enable use of the ArriveCAN platform.

Sam said she’ll even tape necessary ArriveCAN info to the backs of patrons’ passports.

Many people in Thunder Bay, Ont., located about 60 kilometers from the Pigeon River border crossing, will travel for day trips to Grand Portage or Grand Marais in Minnesota.

Mike said that often, people won’t have cellphone service once they cross the border, which has been another barrier since ArriveCAN was implemented early into the pandemic.

“There was one time when the internet went down at customs … so all passengers were coming back to us. So we said, ‘How can we make this better, how can we help these people out?'”

Border agency thanks Ryden’s Border Store

In a statement to CBC, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) said it has made no formal agreements with any private businesses or other organizations to assist individuals with their ArriveCAN submissions. However, customs officers will often point travelers in the direction of locations that can “offer assistance to travelers with ArriveCAN.”

The Pigeon River crossing connects northwestern Ontario with northern Minnesota. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

“We want to thank and recognize all those who have been helping, like the Ryden’s Border Store that has Wi-Fi and may be willing to assist travelers with their submissions. Travelers with a right of entry to Canada are never directed back to the United States,” reads the CBSA’s written statement.

As well, the agency said, there is Wi-Fi at the Pigeon River port of entry for travelers to use, although during peak periods, traffic could exceed infrastructure capacity.

Earlier this week, a group of MPs and border-city mayors also published an open letter calling on the Canadian and US governments to end their pandemic border measures, including Canada’s randomized COVID-19 testing regime.

“We have been left behind in the recovery effort as both countries have largely returned to normal daily life,” the letter said.

It was signed by the mayors of 15 border communities in Canada, including the mayor of Fort Frances in northwestern Ontario.

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