The party may be over for Canadians ‘jumping the ditch’ to join loved ones for formal and informal reunions at Peace Arch State Park.
Increased RCMP presence – not to mention heavy rainfall – put a damper on Canadians joining gatherings just over the international border at O Avenue this week.
Peace Arch Park, on the Canadian side, has been closed as a safety measure to prevent large gatherings in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic declaration in March.
But the State Park, on the U.S. side, has remained open through the summer providing a crowded site daily for camping, wedding parties, family reunions and celebrations of all kinds.
Nearby Canadian resident John Kageorge said, however, that a steady stream of people from this side who were crossing the border on foot to join in the festivities has slowed to a trickle over the last week since the RCMP has stepped up patrols in the area.
Particularly discouraging for the crowds, he said, is that RCMP officers are now directing Canadians returning on foot from the U.S. side that they must check in with Canadian Border Services officers before going any further.
On Monday, Kageorge said, he watched “a parade of people heading to Customs.”
“A person in one group said that she was lucky that she had her passport,” he told Peace Arch News. “A person in another group heading to Customs said – about having gone to the park – ‘It’s not worth it.”
Sgt. Kris Clark, of the Surrey-based federal RCMP unit tasked with border security, confirmed that patrols have increased, although he said response does not constitute a new policy or specific campaign.
“We’re responding to observation and concerns we are hearing about people congregating,” he said. “We’re ensuring that people are following the rules.”
But Kageorge said the level of enforcement had caught many by surprise after a summer he described as a “daily carnival scene” in the U.S. park, “full of lawn chairs, picnics and conjugal tents.”
“Now officers are on the street every day, police cars are down here multiple times every day with lights flashing back and forth and officers have been setting up (observation) in at least three different areas.”
Kageorge said there is a concern that some of the informal trips could be a cover for – or a distraction from – criminal activity, citing suspicions of pedestrians taking down “wagon loads” of supplies and returning, in some cases with “enormous coolers.”
And he said he doubts that the increased enforcement will do much to discourage anything illicit.
“I imagine any people bringing contraband into the country won’t be walking the quarter-mile to Customs,” he said.
A lot of the current problem, he said, has been a result of spotty and inconsistent enforcement activities since the pandemic emergency was declared, by everyone from B.C. Provincial Park rangers to city bylaw staff.
“It’s odd that there has been no co-ordinated comprehensive approach,” he said.
“We need Canada Border Services, Surrey RCMP, federal RCMP, both parks, and the City of Surrey to work together to contain this problem. This requires more than occasional parking tickets and random ID checks to discourage illegal activity.”
There is little hope of stemming activity from the U.S. side, he said – while Washington State parks limit gatherings to no more than five people outside of one household and signs prohibit tents in Peace Arch State Park, visitors are only receiving verbal warnings from U.S. park rangers.
“The (State) park is routinely filled with 20 to 40 tents and multiple gatherings of 30 to 100 people, he said, adding that it has been hosting “up to 20 weddings a week in addition to birthdays, anniversaries and other family reunions.
“Virtually all (include) people from both sides of the border,” he said.