Meet the rural Vermont librarian helping stranded travelers with the ArriveCAN app

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Sharon Ellingwood White says 10 years ago she was helping local residents set up Facebook accounts.

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

“I live it day to day,” she said.

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

Three border crossings are near the Alice M. Ward Memorial Library in Canaan, where Ellingwood White has been busy for the past few months helping stranded travelers fill out their ArrivecAN information on the app or website.

Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers have recommended travelers turn around and drive five minutes to the library — or another 15 minutes to Dunkin’ Donuts in Colebrook, NH — to reasons that Ellingwood White says point to a critical service gap: border crossings have no reliable Wi-Fi or cell phone service, or none at all.

Ellingwood White says she has already helped 12 travelers in one day. (Martin Chamberland/La Presse)

These connectivity black holes, which the CBSA recognizes as the current “challenges”, have forced motorists who are turned away from the border because they have not pre-submitted their ArriveCAN information to search for a nearby Internet connection – or properly enter Canada and quarantine for 14 days.

This is where Ellingwood White said she was only too happy to step in to provide free Wi-Fi at the library.

“I’m kinda well-known. Famous. Aggressively welcoming,” she said.

“Libraries are very well placed, we discovered during the pandemic, to respond to very local needs.”

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Sharon Ellingwood White, director of the Alice M. Ward Memorial Library in Canaan, Vermont, near the Quebec border, says she has helped many people fill out their ArriveCAN information over the past few months using the Wi-Fi from its library because the three nearby border crossings do not have reliable connectivity for app users.

“One day I had 12 people”

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

There are people in Canaan – many of whom are French-speaking and elderly – who have family in Quebec or who want to shop in places like Sherbrooke, Quebec, for hard-to-find items like 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 have internet at home, “it’s not reliable,” she said.

“ArriveCAN doesn’t offer easy options for same-day travel,” she said. “Requiring an address for a destination means people have to look up addresses for a grocery store or a restaurant. It’s annoying and weird.”

There are American travelers from other states who are unaware of the ArriveCAN requirement, such as an 83-year-old woman who was driving alone from Maine to Montreal, Ellingwood White said.

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

Canada Border Services Agency officers direct people to the Alice M. Ward Memorial Library in Canaan as a source of free internet access to fill out their ArriveCAN information. (Sharon Ellingwood White)

There are also Canadians returning home.

“The younger ones are pretty savvy with their cell phones but don’t have US data plans, so they use our Wi-Fi,” she said.

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

“It happened 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 pays it forward.

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

“And Sharon wasn’t there.”

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

CBSA concedes connectivity issues

At a recent parliamentary committee hearing, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said that although “there is no evidence that ArriveCAN is causing problems” at airports, he was aware that communities Border officials were flagging enforcement as a problem.

Ellingwood White wrote to the Alghabra office last week to describe the situation in Canaan. She did not receive a response, she said.

She had previously written to the office of Public Security Minister Marco Mendicino. The CBSA responded to him on Mendicino’s behalf in June.

The agency thanked her for her assistance to travelers while noting that “travellers are responsible for ensuring they are aware of all requirements before applying for entry into Canada.”

Those who don’t have a device and are experiencing technical issues “may also ask another person, such as a friend or relative, for assistance in submitting their information,” the letter says.

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

Ellingwood White said this only underscores an “equity” gap for older people and less tech-savvy travellers.

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

“He is [so easy] say these older travelers need to find a teenager or they need to find someone to help them. It’s not fairness.”

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Ellingwood White said she had turned down numerous offers of money for her help.

The CBSA’s response to Ellingwood White went on to detail the region’s connectivity issues.

“Border Services Officers at the East Hereford and Hereford Road ports of entry would like to be able to help travelers complete their ArriveCAN submissions, but no Wi-Fi is available,” the agency said.

“In addition, the offices are located in mountainous regions where there is no Canadian cellular network. There is a weak US cellular signal at the Hereford Road office. Some travelers use this network to complete their ArriveCAN submissions, but others prefer not to. pay roaming charges to use a US network. »

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

The CBSA aims to have a cellular network booster in place at the Port of Hereford by September 30, the agency told CBC News via email last week.

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

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

Refuse travelers’ money

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

“Helping travelers in distress is one of the most humane things we can do,” she said.

As of May 24, the CBSA began letting fully vaccinated Canadian land travelers go with a warning the first time they neglected to complete the application if they had no history of non-compliance. This one-time exemption was extended to foreign nationals as of July 29.

Since then, the number of travelers required to return to the United States to complete ArriveCAN has been significantly reduced, the CBSA said.

Ellingwood White also noticed fewer people being turned away.

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

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

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

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

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