Jack Knox: Not knowing who’s welcome is pandemic pickle

It took a while, but I finally found one. This was the other day, when I was up in the Interior, off-Island for the first time since the drawbridge went down. On the highway, I kept my eyes peeled for ’Merican border-breachers hell-bent on spreading COVID-19 like smallpox while supposedly driving to Alaska.

Alas, during three days of searching, I only spotted one U.S. licence plate, on a vehicle from Oregon in a parking lot near Penticton. There was no one inside the car, but I torched it anyway, just to be on the safe side.

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“Things are different today,” I reasoned. “Can’t be too careful.” Gosh, I hadn’t felt that hyper-vigilant/paranoid since the days after 9/11, when I jumped a guy I overheard ordering apple pie “a la mode,” which we all recognize as jihadi terrorist for “God is ice cream.”

Except then, this guy in Kamloops started squinting at my own licence plate holder: “You from Vancouver Island?”

“It’s OK,” I assured him. “I rolled up the windows and held my breath while driving through Kelowna. And on the ferry, I paid six bucks for the decontamination chamber where the Pacific Buffet used to be.” (This last bit might have been hyperbole.)

He hesitated, wasn’t sure what to make of my reply. I sympathized, having faced his conundrum myself. That is: Exactly how foreign do you have to be to warrant getting the pandemic stink-eye from locals? How far away do you have to live before you’re seen not as a neighbour, but as a threat?

Trying to figure out who is welcome where has been a COVID quandary. One day, they’re pleading with tourists to stay away from Hornby, or Salt Spring, or Tofino, or Port Renfrew, or wherever, and the next, they’re welcoming them with open arms and cash registers. Or fixed bayonets. The reaction isn’t always consistent, even after restrictions on non-essential travel have been eased.

Albertans must not know what to think. Just over a month ago, John Horgan said people from Alberta and the Yukon were free to visit B.C. as long as they behaved themselves. “To all those Albertans who have properties in British Columbia and spend much of their time in British Columbia, I’m certain that they’ll be coming for the summer and we welcome them,” he said.

Alas, that memo apparently didn’t reach the self-appointed Pandemic Police, who took it upon themselves to leave nasty notes on out-of-province vehicles.

Then, last week, after being asked a question about the harassment of Canadians who had come back from the U.S. and were driving around in cars with American licence plates, Horgan said something about how such people should get B.C. plates, or ride the bus or climb on a bike.

Somehow, by the time the story got to the other side of the Rockies, his answer had been interpreted to include vacationing Albertans, which inspired a by now predictable anti-B.C. backlash in Wild Rose Country (though at least they didn’t smash any wine bottles this time). Alberta is pretty thin-skinned when it comes to Horgan and B.C., taking offence even when none is intended.

Not that we haven’t given them reason. First B.C. tried to block the pipeline. Then, after inviting Alberta retirees to invest their life savings in Victoria condos, we blindsided them by replacing the welcome mat with a speculation tax last year.

And then, after the pandemic arrived in March, we told them to stay away from their B.C. homes altogether. “Don’t come near us,” we told them, “but feel free to keep paying your property taxes.” As a marketing slogan, it doesn’t have the ring of “Super, natural B.C.,” does it?

Anyway, we’re all in a bit of a pandemic pickle now. We’re not sure how far we can go and still be accepted, no longer sure of where the borders are (other than the one with the U.S., which we’re bricking over).

Feel free to explore our entire spectacular province, we’re urged, except for those parts where you’re not wanted (oh, and BTW, the people who don’t want you in their community might still think it’s OK to visit yours).

Conversely, we’re not always sure to whom to give the stink-eye. Americans? Albertans? Okanagan partiers? Anyone from the wrong side of the strait? Or the Malahat? Sometimes you’re the car-torcher. Sometimes you’re the torchee.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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