A two-hour drive southeast of Winnipeg, wedged between the border of Manitoba and Ontario, lies a peculiar chunk of land called the Northwest Angle. This land sits on the shores of Lake of the Woods, a broad body of water that houses over 14,500 islands. The Northwest Angle is surrounded by Canadian territory on three sides and the only way to access it by road is through Manitoba. Yet, the Northwest Angle falls under the jurisdiction of the United States, resting like a small top hat on the state of Minnesota. It is the country’s northernmost contiguous point.
Flush with cottages and fishing resorts, the Northwest Angle has been a popular summer destination for over 100 years. Americans who own secondary properties in the area are currently unable to access them with the Canada-U.S. border closed due to COVID-19. The closure was scheduled until May 21 but has since been extended until June 21. Diane Schwartz-Williams, executive director of the Lake of the Woods District Stewardship Association, says that of their 3,000 members, 20 per cent are American, meaning close to 600 people could be affected.
This isn’t the first time the Northwest Angle’s border has come into question. On Dec. 30, 2018, a petition was presented to the White House, asking for the land to be given to Canada, arguing that the strange border occurred due to a surveying error. The petition required 100,000 signatures for the White House to respond. Currently, it has just over 5,500.
While it’s unlikely any action will be taken, the petition does illustrate the Northwest Angle’s perplexing past. In his book Minnesota’s Boundary with Canada: Its Evolution Since 1783, history professor William E. Lass writes that the area’s history stretches back to a map created in 1755 by cartographer John Mitchell. Mitchell was tasked with mapping out French and British possessions in North America, but he had never visited the Lake of the Woods area. To draw this section, he relied on accounts from explorers, fur traders, and ship captains.
This map was then used in 1783, after the American Revolutionary War, to create the border between Canada and the U.S. It was determined that the border would pass through the northwestern-most point of Lake of the Woods. Mitchell, however, had inaccurately drawn the size and location of the area.
It wasn’t until the 1820s that a joint U.S.-British surveying team corrected the size and placement of Lake of the Woods. The border, however, had already been cemented during the signing of the U.S.’s independence treaty in Paris. The States refused to renegotiate, keeping the Northwest Angle as part of Minnesota.
This decision is now causing major headaches among Americans hoping to access their cottages this summer. “Anyone that needs to cross the border [into Canada] is not going to be able to unless they’re a Canadian citizen,” Schwartz-Williams says. To gain access, cottagers have lobbied Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar to open the roads between Minnesota and the Northwest Angle. As far as Schwartz-Williams is aware, there’s been no response to this.
Searching for alternative routes, a few adventurous cottagers have contemplated boating across the lake, constituting close to a 65 kilometre crossing, depending on where you started. But Schwartz-Williams says this isn’t possible. “The U.S.-Canada border runs through Lake of the Woods. The same regulations and restrictions to crossing the border hold true whether you’re doing it by boat or by car.”
Beyond the cottagers, the closed border is also affecting local businesses, particularly resorts. “Some of the resorts are owned by folks who are American citizens,” Schwartz-Williams explains. She adds that during the summer, the area’s population doubles with cottagers and tourists, providing seasonal resorts with their main source of revenue. But if the owners aren’t able to cross the border, the resorts face a missed season.
While the border closure mainly affects U.S. citizens trying to access their cottages, Canada is seeing its own complications between the border of Manitoba and Ontario. Schwartz-Williams says 50 per cent of their members are Manitoba residents, many with cottages in the Ontario section of Lake of the Woods. While this border has remained open, if cottagers visit their Ontario cottages and then return to Manitoba, they will be forced to self-isolate for 14 days.
“[The pandemic] is making it very tough,” Schwartz-Williams says. “No question.”