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New Brunswick proposes solution to open Atlantic bubble and end border blockade

Premier Iain Rankin has said the health measures are necessary because of New Brunswick's move last week to reopen its boundaries to Canadian travellers

HALIFAX — A meeting of the four Atlantic premiers Wednesday afternoon ended with officials from Nova Scotia set to consider a proposal from New Brunswick to end a blockade of the Trans-Canada Highway by protesters angry at Nova Scotia's COVID-19 travel restrictions.

The blockade near the New Brunswick border on Wednesday caused traffic chaos, disrupting commerce and leading to the cancellation of more than 100 medical appointments.

The protest began after the Nova Scotia government announced Tuesday — one day before the province's boundaries were to reopen to free travel from the rest of Atlantic Canada — that travellers from New Brunswick would need to self-isolate upon arrival even though people from Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador wouldn't have to. New Brunswick travellers would be subject to isolation requirements based on their vaccination status and COVID-19 test results. 

Premier Iain Rankin has said the health measures are necessary because of New Brunswick's move last week to reopen its boundaries to Canadian travellers without requiring them to self-isolate as long as they have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

But Wednesday evening, following the meeting of the premiers, New Brunswick's Blaine Higgs said he's offered to share with Nova Scotia the information his province gathers from motorists as they enter New Brunswick from the rest of the country.

"We ask them for registration and proof of vaccination and we give them the rules and regulations based on what we're doing. But we do that same thing for every other Atlantic province. We tell them the rules for each respective province," Higgs said.

"We can give (Nova Scotia) the names of who is coming to Nova Scotia and they can call them and contact them, have them tested or isolated, whatever they want to do. It doesn't impact what should happen within the Atlantic bubble. The rest of us should be able to move freely through the four provinces," Higgs said. 

He said Rankin said he would consider the idea, but gave no commitment on timing, although Higgs said it needs to happen quickly because people are being unnecessarily impacted by the blockade.

Nova Scotia RCMP spokesman Cpl. Chris Marshall said talks were ongoing between protesters and officers at the scene in an attempt to get traffic moving again.

"A few trucks with essential goods have gotten through and a few essential workers as well, but we continue to be engaged in a dialogue with protesters to hopefully peacefully resolve this," Marshall said in an interview.

Marshall said traffic was shut down in both directions overnight after a protest that began Tuesday at Exit 7 near the Cobequid Pass moved to the border area outside Amherst, N.S. He said police were advising motorists to avoid the area, which is one of the only entry points between the two provinces.

"The impact here is fairly significant, so we are working to get things reopened here as quickly as we can," Marshall said. 

Rankin was on the province's South Shore Wednesday to make two funding announcements and wasn't immediately available to speak to The Canadian Press. But the CBC reported the premier told reporters in Lunenburg, N.S., that he wasn't pressed to seek a court injunction to stop the protest, adding that he hoped people recognized "the irony in blocking a highway that they want open."

Meanwhile, Bethany McCormick, vice-president of operations for Nova Scotia Health's northern zone, said services at the Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre in Amherst had been affected because a number of staff and physicians who live in New Brunswick weren't able to report to work.

"A number of our employees and physicians have experienced long delays at the border or an inability to cross the blockade altogether," McCormick said in an interview. She said the staffing shortage has led to the cancellation of 120 clinic appointments for such things as outpatient services, blood collection and diagnostic imaging.

Amherst Mayor David Kogon said the emotional reaction of some people in the area to the border measures has ranged from "severe disappointment to total outrage." 

"Their expectations were dashed," Kogon said in an interview Wednesday. "They had an expectation to be able to see family and friends and do business in New Brunswick on June 23 and that didn't happen." 

He said he spoke with Rankin by phone Wednesday morning to try to clarify whether the travel restrictions would remain during the scheduled reopening of Nova Scotia's boundaries to travellers from the rest of Canada on June 30. Kogon said Rankin assured him the measures would only be in place until next Wednesday. 

"The message I would like to get out there is that as disappointing and annoying as it is to have to change your plans, we're only talking about seven days and let's try to be peaceful, calm and more reasonable," he said. "I understand (protesters') frustration … but we want lawful protests only." 

During a briefing on Tuesday, Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, said the restrictions for New Brunswick travellers would likely be reassessed next week. Strang, however, said any decision would be based on the level of virus activity in New Brunswick as a result of its boundaries reopening to Canadian travellers. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2021. 

— With files by Kevin Bissett in Fredericton

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

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