A couple from Abbotsford in their 80s fought their way home during the flooding last November, and now they’re fighting $11,500 in fines they were handed by a Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) officer.
It was Nov. 28 and the day started with the sky opening up and pouring on them in Everson, Wash., where they were visiting their children and grandchildren for the weekend.
It was the couple’s first visit to Everson since the beginning of the pandemic, and the first time they had seen their grandchildren in a long time.
The worst of the flooding had already hit Abbotsford, but another atmospheric river arrived and the Nooksack River was breaching its banks. The Nooksack doesn’t just flow into Abbotsford — the river runs through the heart of Everson.
They were right in the thick of it, and needed to get home. The couple has requested anonymity for privacy reasons, and the husband was – and still is – being treated for stage 4 cancer. He had four appointments lined up at the cancer clinic that week, so getting home was imperative to keep his treatment on schedule.
Just as the couple realized the flooding was probably going to get worse, and they should return home, all of the sirens went off. The car radio, cellphones and even an air raid siren all blared the state of emergency. The sirens in nearby Sumas could even be heard in Abbotsford.
“Everywhere the sirens,” the wife recalls, sitting at their kitchen table, holding her hands up to her head. “We were scared.”
All the while, roads were flooding and being closed, impacting the Abbotsford-Huntingdon border crossing. Their next closest option was Aldergrove. So their adult children piloted the way ahead of them in a large pickup, ensuring the elderly couple made it to the border safely.
What happened next has bewildered the lawyer who is helping them fight the tickets.
As the couple pulled up to the Aldergrove border, they saw a car at the border guard’s window drive through to Canada. They pulled up to the window next, but it was soon made clear that they’d made a very big mistake.
A border services officer climbed down from the stool he was on to speak to them through the window.
“You just ran the red light,” he told the man. “Do you have a reason to come across?”
They explained they were coming from Everson to get home to Abbotsford and that roads were closing behind them as waters were rising. The border guard said they didn’t have an appointment to cross there, so they would have to travel down to Bellingham and try again on Monday.
“I said, ‘I have stage 4 cancer and I need to get home,’” the man said, and they had no idea if the roads would be even worse the following day.
After an hour and a half in the Aldergrove border office – empty but for the couple and about a half dozen border agents –they were told they would be fined if they crossed.
They decided to go home anyway.
“I’m not going to back away from this,” he told the guards. “I’ll see you in court.”
Uphar Dhaliwal, from the Dhanu Dhaliwal Law Group, said the couple experienced trauma in their dealings with the CBSA officers that day. She added that the officers were “lacking compassion.”
Her own family and long-time friends had been flooded and evacuated in Sumas Prairie, and she is well aware of the dire situation for Abbotsford residents, and the fear they could have.
“Where was the dignity?” she said. “It makes no sense to me.”
The couple had never heard of making an appointment to cross the border, and they felt that in the circumstances of being in the middle of a flood and wanting to return home, the CBSA would allow them to pass through.
They are hoping a judge will agree with them and dismiss the fines. They have disputed the fines and are still awaiting a response for a court date.
Dhaliwal said they are not the only residents who have come to them with border troubles during the flooding.
“I can say we have heard of at least a handful of people that this has happened to,” she said. “This absolutely should not have been done. These people should not have been put in this predicament. The way they were treated at our border is appalling.”
She said these are seniors who had waited through the pandemic for everyone to be ready to properly have a safe visit, only to run into trouble at the border in the middle of a local emergency.
“It makes no sense to me,” she said.
She suggests anyone facing border fines from trying to cross during the local flooding should seek legal counsel from a local lawyer who is aware of the situation the city was in.
“Who else understands the gravity of what we were going through?”
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