A Library Director Helps Elderly Francophones Cross the Canadian Border | True 802 | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A Library Director Helps Elderly Francophones Cross the Canadian Border

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Published May 2, 2022 at 5:24 p.m.
Updated May 4, 2022 at 10:09 a.m.


Jeannette Belanger, Carmen Gagnon, and Ginette Gagnon outside the Canaan library - COURTESY OF KIM HUBBARD
  • Courtesy of Kim Hubbard
  • Jeannette Belanger, Carmen Gagnon, and Ginette Gagnon outside the Canaan library
Jeannette Belanger had been traveling from Vermont into Canada to see family for more than 60 years when the pandemic shut things down. Blocked by rules that barred non-essential travel, Belanger, who was born in Québec but lives in the Vermont border town of Canaan, decided to wait it out.

But even as the rules eased, Belanger faced another roadblock: the ArriveCAN phone app, where travelers must upload their vaccination information, identification, and travel plans in order to gain entry.

Belanger has had three COVID-19 vaccine shots. But at age 80, she’d never downloaded an app before and had no desire to start now. However, with a funeral to attend February 23, Belanger, a retired nurse, decided to get some help with the border-crossing paperwork.



 Her longtime friend Ginette Gagnon steered Belanger to the bright-yellow building that houses Canaan's Alice M. Ward Memorial Library. There, library director Sharon Ellingwood White has become known for providing ArriveCAN support to Francophones living in Vermont and New Hampshire.

"Many elderly people are very intimidated" by ArriveCAN, White said. Some drive to border stations to ask for help. When they are turned away, White said, the Québec-bound are advised to head for the Canaan bibliothèque.

“The Canadians know: Go to the yellow library,” White said.

White helped Belanger sign up for ArriveCAN on the library’s computer and print out the barcode that serves as an entry ticket for people who don’t have smartphones. Belanger, still grateful two months later, made it to the funeral.

Although Gagnon has a cell phone, she doesn't use it very often and hadn't downloaded the app herself. But after April 1 rolled around and Canada lifted its requirement that border-crossers show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test, Gagnon decided it was time for her, too, to head back to Québec. She wanted to take her husband to the eye doctor in the neighboring town of Coaticook, and to get back to the grocery store she frequented pre-pandemic.

“They have the curd cheese we love,” said Gagnon, who was also born in Québec and has an affinity for poutine. “You have it with French fries and Canadian gravy. It’s not the same here at all.”
Left to right: Jeannette Belanger, librarian Sharon Ellingwood White (standing), Ginette Gagnon and Carmen Gagnon - COURTESY OF KIM HUBBARD
  • Courtesy of Kim Hubbard
  • Left to right: Jeannette Belanger, librarian Sharon Ellingwood White (standing), Ginette Gagnon and Carmen Gagnon
There's a large pool of people who can use assistance. Many locals don't have WiFi at home, White said, and don't own smartphones. She knows plenty of patrons who don't have email addresses. She estimated she's helped about a dozen people with their ArriveCAN paperwork.

White takes pride in the town's bilingual and regional library, which has a robust French-language book collection and many cardholders from Québec and New Hampshire. For her, the community doesn’t stop at any border; the region that touches southern Québec, New Hampshire’s Coos County and the Canaan area is deeply connected by family and business ties, some going back to the 19th century.

With entry to Canada limited, “it’s like telling you in Burlington that you can’t go to Shelburne, you can’t go to Essex Junction,” White said.

White has plenty of experience helping patrons tackle online paperwork. She regularly walks them through the process of applying for fishing licenses and car registrations. In the first year of the pandemic, she helped locals sign up for their unemployment benefits, with papers handed back and forth through the front door.

“The fax was the only way to get through, and we were the only fax machine for miles around,” White said.

Her more recent role as ArriveCAN facilitator picked up momentum as word got around the community of elderly residents who have family and friends in Québec. “I started bringing my friends in,” Gagnon said.

The app requires users to enter information about when they’ll be traveling. For repeat trips to Québec, that means repeat visits to the library.



But White said her lessons are getting through to some patrons. One recently told the library director that she'd made it across the border without help.

"I don’t need you this time," the woman told White.

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