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Meet the librarian in rural Vermont helping stranded travellers with the ArriveCAN app

Sharon Ellingwood White says that 10 years ago, she was helping local residents create Facebook accounts.

Now the part-time librarian in Canaan, Vt., says she’s become the “de-facto” local expert in another must-have app: ArriveCAN, the COVID-19 health data entry program that’s mandatory for anyone seeking to enter Canada by motor vehicle or airplane.

“I live it day in and day out,” she said.

Canaan is a small rural community tucked in the northeast corner of Vermont, on the border with eastern Quebec.

Three border crossings stand close to Canaan’s Alice M. Ward Memorial Library, where Ellingwood White has been busy these past few months helping stranded travellers fill out their ArrivecAN info on the app or website.

Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA) officers have been recommending travellers turn around and drive five minutes to the library — or another 15 minutes to the Dunkin’ Donuts in Colebrook, N.H. — for reasons Ellingwood White says highlight a crucial service gap: The border crossings don’t have reliable Wi-Fi or cellphone service, or none at all.

Ellingwood White says she once helped 12 travellers in one day. (Martin Chamberland/La Presse)

Those connectivity black holes, which the CBSA acknowledges present “challenges,” have forced motorists who are turned away from the border because they haven’t pre-submitted their ArriveCAN information to seek out a nearby internet connection — or else proceed into Canada and quarantine for 14 days.

That’s where Ellingwood White said she’s only too happy to step in to offer free library Wi-Fi.

“I’m a little bit well known. Notorious. Aggressively welcoming,” she said.

“Libraries are very well poised, we found out in the pandemic, to pivot to very local needs.”

WATCH | Librarian calls for ArriveCAN access ‘equity’: 

Librarian calls for ArriveCAN access ‘equity’

Sharon Ellingwood White, the director of the Alice M. Ward Memorial Library in Canaan, Vermont, near the border with Quebec, says she’s helped many people fill out their ArriveCAN information in recent months using her library’s Wi-Fi because the three nearby border crossings don’t have reliable connectivity for app users.

‘One day I had 12 people’

Those turned around at the border only to land on the library’s doorstep fall into three categories, Ellingwood White said.

There are Canaan locals — many of them French-speaking and elderly — who have family in Quebec or want to shop in places like Sherbrooke, Que., for hard-to-find items such as lactose-free yogurt or, in the case of Ellingwood White, a prom suit for her son.

Some don’t own a smartphone, and if they do have home internet, “it is not reliable,” she said.

“ArriveCAN does not have easy options for same-day trips,” she said. “Requiring an address for a destination involves people having to look up addresses of the grocery store or a restaurant. It’s awkward and odd.”

There are American travellers from other states who aren’t aware of the ArriveCAN requirement, such as an 83-year-old woman who was driving from Maine to Montreal alone, Ellingwood White said.

“She was shaking. She was in tears. I had to make her a Gmail account.”

Canada Border Service Agency officers have been directing people to the Alice M. Ward Memorial Library in Canaan as a source for free internet for filling out their ArriveCAN information. (Sharon Ellingwood White)

There are also Canadians headed back home.

“The younger crossers are pretty savvy with their cellphones but do not have American cellphone data plans. So they use our Wi-Fi,” she said.

Border traffic was limited back when a pre-entry COVID-19 test result was needed. But when the Canadian government dropped that requirement last spring, “the floodgates opened,” she said.

“It was happening a lot. One day I had 12 people.”

Canaan resident Ginette Gagnon said Ellingwood White helped her figure out how to photograph her passport and COVID-19 vaccination card using her smartphone. Now, Gagnon is paying it forward.

“One of my husband’s friends came over to see if I could help him with it because he was having a little party this weekend and he wanted to go buy some curd cheese in Canada.

“And Sharon wasn’t around.”

Ellingwood White poses with Canaan resident Ginette Gagnon, who she taught to use her smartphone to capture documents required by ArriveCAN. (Martin Chamberland/La Presse)

CBSA concedes connectivity issues

During a recent parliamentary committee hearing, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said that while “there is no evidence whatsoever that ArriveCAN is causing any problems” at airports, he was aware of border communities flagging the app as an issue.

Ellingwood White wrote Alghabra’s office last week to outline the situation in Canaan. She has not received a response, she said. 

She had previously written Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s office. The CBSA wrote her back on behalf of Mendicino in June.

The agency thanked her for her assistance to travellers while also noting that “travellers are responsible for ensuring that they are aware of all requirements prior to seeking entry to Canada.”

Those without a device and experiencing technical issues “can also ask another person, such as a friend or relative, for assistance to submit their information,” the letter said.

Inside the Alice M. Ward Memorial Library in Canaan. Ellingwood White says those travellers who want to cross the border but land on the library’s doorstep fall into three categories: local residents, Americans from other states and Canadians heading home. (Sharon Ellingwood White)

Ellingwood White said that only underscores an “equity” gap for seniors and less-technologically savvy travellers.

When creating the Gmail account for the 83-year-old traveller, “I said, ‘You may want to share this information with your children.’ And she said, ‘I don’t have children.’

“It is [so easy] to say these elderly travellers need to find a teenager or they need to find someone to help them. That is not equity.”

WATCH | ‘Something good will come of this’: 

‘Something good will come of this’

Ellingwood White said she’s refused many offers of money for her help.

The CBSA’s response to Ellingwood White went on to detail the area’s connectivity challenges.

“Border service officers at the East Hereford and Hereford Road ports of entry would like to be able to assist travellers in completing their ArriveCAN submissions, but no Wi-Fi network is available,” the agency said.

“Additionally, the offices are located in mountainous areas where there is no Canadian cellular network. There is a weak cellular network signal from the United States at the Hereford Road office. Some travellers use this network to complete their ArriveCAN submissions, but others prefer not to pay roaming charges for using a U.S. network.”

The Hereford Road border crossing has been flagged as a priority for Wi-Fi or Canadian cellular network amplifiers, the agency told Ellingwood White.

CBSA is aiming to have a cellular network booster in place at the Hereford port by Sept. 30, the agency told CBC News via email last week.   

Even if boosters are installed, they won’t help travellers without smartphones or who have home internet issues, Ellingwood White said.

“This is something that we are looking at with my colleagues and especially the minister responsible for border services,” MP Marie-Claude Bibeau, who represents the Quebec area bordering Canaan, said in an interview. 

Refusing travellers’ money

Though she finds the underlying reasons for their visits frustrating, Ellingwood White said she hasn’t turned anyone away.

“Helping travellers who are in distress is one of the most human things that we can do,” she said.

As of May 24, CBSA began letting fully vaccinated Canadian land travellers off with a warning the first time they neglected to fill out the app if they had no history of non-compliance. That one-time exemption was extended to foreign nationals as of July 29. 

Since then, the number of travellers required to return to the U.S. to complete ArriveCAN has been significantly reduced, CBSA said. 

Ellingwood White has also noticed fewer people being turned back.

“But still some [are] coming,” she said. 

Many people have offered Ellingwood White money in exchange for the library’s free internet, but Ellingwood White said she’s refused compensation.

“I shake my head and say, ‘That is literally the definition of highway robbery.'”

Seeing travellers breathe a sigh of relief after being helped through the ArriveCAN process “is repayment in itself,” she said.

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