Until spring 2020, the Canada-U.S. border was not much more than an inconvenience to Petra Nielsen and Mark Wolford’s marriage. The couple, together since 2014, would frequently cross between Nielsen’s house in Grand Forks and Wolford’s acreage across the line in Danville. They were on a first-name basis with the border guards and could practically wave to each other from their homes.
Then in March, citing COVID-19, the two countries’ governments slammed closed the gates to their weekend trips and brought down another strain on what has already been a difficult few years for the couple.
“I think COVID started out kind of fun for everybody, when you had some extra time to do some extra stuff that you haven’t had time for,” said Wolford, who has been waiting on his Canadian permanent residency application for two and a half years. “And then slowly it turned into something different where it was very stressful to be away from your wife, and people and socializing.”
Nielsen had already been through two floods – 2017 in Manly Meadows and 2018 in North Ruckle – and had spent two years waiting to see what the city would offer to buy her property as part of its future flood mitigation plans. In the meantime, she put aside her own trauma after the 2018 flood to help her neighbours as a case manager for the Boundary Flood Recovery team. When the border closed and she couldn’t see her husband, she started walking as a way of dealing with the stress, logging between 10 and 14 kilometres a day to find some stability during the border lock down.
“I could notice a difference in my mental health if I wasn’t exercising,” she said.
And then, on a June day at the Danville border crossing, under the supervision of Canadian border guards and a notary, the couple met up to sign the deed to their new home in Grand Forks.
“Right when it really started to get difficult, it was released and this house came through,” said Wolford from the kitchen of his new home.
On June 8, Canada began allowing immediate family members living in the U.S. to enter Canada, ending three months of forced separation for the couple. It’s still not a free-flowing life for Wolford though, who has to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival at his new home, in the city where he would normally play with the Grand Forks Pipes & Drums, run errands and see friends.
The little white and green house on the southern city limit is a small victory after several years of limbo.
“We were done with the buyout and we could be together, and then COVID hit, and everything changed again,” Nielsen said.
After the 2018 flood, Nielsen spent three months in a motel and another four with a friend, before renting a place of her own. She secured buyout money – a satisfactory sum, lost and irreplaceable personal items notwithstanding – and then the pandemic hit. Sitting on the comfy brown couch in her new living room that had been lent to her from a friend (the flood destroyed her old one), she says she’s still waiting for something else to drop.
“It feels great, but at the same time, I’m kind of waiting for which hammer is coming down next,” she said. “It’s really difficult to have a plan if you don’t know. Basically, we’re not in control of anything.”
House hunting during a pandemic wasn’t the plan either, but the couple made it happen, with the help of some generous border guards.
Papers had to be inspected before Nielsen could pass them across the line to her husband, and inspected again before coming back over. In between, Nielsen said, the Canadian guards cracked good-humoured jokes about how Wolford’s big toe had crossed the 49th parallel.
When he signed the deed, Wolford had only seen pictures of his new house. Still, it was yet another hurdle the pair had overcome.
“We all experience difficult situations in life,” said Nielsen. “How do you recover? I think acknowledging that one went through trauma is already huge, and then making sure that you do something everyday that [helps you],” she said.
Now, in a place where she can settle with a half-acre and eventually plant a garden (Nielsen had an organic farm in Manly Meadows before she moved after flooding in 2017), she’s still wary of what the world may come up with.
“I always expect that it’s not done until it’s done. You never know what else is going to be thrown at you,” Nielsen said.
Wolford is still waiting for his permanent resident application to go through, even though he was told when applied it should only take a year. (This paper put a media request in to the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration in early July and has not yet heard back, for context.)
So, rather than planning major renovations or crops for the garden, the idea now is to just exist for the moment. ”I need to just heal from all the trauma over the last two and a half years, and just relax and just be – just enjoy,” Nielsen said.