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COMMENTARY: Amateur ‘COVID coast guard’ keeps watch on U.S. boats. But is it too much?

B.C. premier suggests U.S. licence plate holders ride bus, bike or change plates to avoid abuse
WATCH: Americans in our province are facing repeated harassment and threats for their U.S. licence plates and as Paul Johnson reports, B.C. Premier John Horgan is suggesting they try public transit or get their plates changed to avoid abuse.

Call them British Columbia’s “COVID coast guard,” on alert and on the lookout for American boaters sneaking into Canadian waters, possibly with the virus onboard as an unwanted stowaway.

Canada’s COVID-19 rules apply to international marine traffic, just as they do at border crossings on land and at airports.

“Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) continues to enforce the prohibition on U.S. and foreign pleasure craft from crossing the border into Canada for tourism and recreational purposes,” Transportation Minister Marc Garneau wrote in a letter this week to the Council of B.C. Yacht Clubs.

A group of B.C. boaters associated with the council is trying to help border officials identify Americans trying to skirt the COVID rules.

The boaters constantly monitor marine-traffic websites, looking for American vessels equipped with the Automatic Identification System (AIS) that electronically tracks a boat’s precise location, direction and speed.

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When they spot an American vessel in B.C. waters, they alert border officials.

Read more: ‘Completely unacceptable’ — COVID-19 customer rudeness reaches breaking point in B.C.

“It’s live, real-time,” Vancouver Island boater George Creek told me.

“So when we see a U.S.-flagged vessel travelling north, we’re saying, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, why is that there?’ The border is closed to recreational, non-essential travel.”

But wait, what about the “Alaska loophole”?

B.C. Premier John Horgan recently raised concerns about reports of Americans making it into Canada by telling border officials they were simply driving straight through to Alaska, when in fact they were planning on a COVID-dodging Canadian vacation instead.

Garneau’s letter said there’s a marine “Alaska loophole” too, allowing American boats to sail through Canadian waters on their way to the land of Sarah Palin.

“Their transit must be direct, continuous, uninterrupted and follow the most reasonable route,” the transportation minister wrote.

So couldn’t all those American boats just be heading north to America’s land of the midnight sun?

“That window is closed,” Creek said, explaining any Alaska-bound American sailboats and other pleasure craft should have left by now to avoid bad weather in the fall.

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“If people go to Alaska, they go in April and May,” he said.

“Instead, we have boats hanging around in our waters for a long time.”

Meanwhile, as these COVID water-watchdogs keep an eye on sea traffic, there are growing concerns about land-lubber Americans stealing across the border.

People driving cars displaying American licence plates are at particular risk of being harassed by amateur Canadian “COVID cops.”

Now politicians are piling on.

Horgan, the B.C. premier, was asked this week if he had any advice for people getting hassled for driving vehicles with American plates.

“With respect to those who have offshore plates and are feeling harassed, I would suggest perhaps public transit,” Horgan said bluntly.

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“I would suggest that they ride a bike.”

Read more: Horgan — U.S. licence plate holders should ride the bus, bike or change to B.C. plates following abuse

The comment was a surprisingly harsh one, especially when you consider there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation for someone driving a car with U.S. plates in Canada.

The vehicle could belong to a Canadian returning from the United States. It could belong to an essential worker legally allowed to cross the border into Canada.

It could be a rental vehicle leased out in Canada, but registered south of the border. It could be a vehicle owned by an American who has legally immigrated to Canada.

All of these explanations caused the province’s popular public-health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, to offer some gentler advice.

“We need to treat everybody with kindness and respect,” she said. “We don’t know everybody’s story.”

Wise words, but a lot of vehicles displaying American licence plates are also displaying something else these days: a sign explaining they are legally in Canada and please don’t harass us, insult us or worse.

The problem, of course, is that the COVID-19 infection rate in the United States continues to gallop far ahead of the infection rate in Canada.

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If that trend continues, watch for Canadian COVID cops get bolder, while pressure builds on Canadian politicians to extend and strengthen the border lockdown.

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at mike@cknw.com and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.