June 20, 2018
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What does a free trade agreement have to do with the canceled Canadian bike tour?

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

BELFAST, Maine — Though Maine politicians and others are trying to brainstorm ways to get a group of 2,000 Canadian cyclists into the state, an official from Customs and Border Protection said Friday that such groups must adhere to the laws and regulations governing international travel for business.

Those regulations include the North American Free Trade Agreement, according to Shelbe Benson-Fuller of the federal agency. Though she could not comment on the specific situation with Velo Quebec, she said that any type of tour business must start in its home country, according to NAFTA.

“Whether U.S. or Canadian, you start together, cross the border together, do your business — then leave together,” she said. “Not crossing the border together, that’s where the NAFTA labor law kicks in.”

Velo Quebec organizers this week indicated that they would not be able to do that with the 2,000 cyclists who are expected to be part of the Grand Tour Desjardins, an event that they had intended to begin and end in Waterville after making a 600-mile circuit of Maine. They found that the mostly Canadian participants wanted to take their own transportation to Maine and join the group in Waterville, Alain Gascon, the event coordinator, said Wednesday.

The problem with that is that if the tour had begun in Maine, Velo Quebec or any other company would then have to obtain the correct work permits for its foreign workers — such as the Canadian bike tour guides. Gascon said that it’s the organization’s practice to hire workers in the towns where the tour passes through to do work including cooking, cleaning and more, but 100 bike guides and other employees from Canada are crucial to the success of the operation. Getting those people the work permits required by NAFTA would be too expensive and difficult.

“We can employ a lot of people, but we absolutely need our team, our supervisors,” he said.

He said Wednesday that Velo Quebec would “respect absolutely” the rules and policies that govern this kind of international endeavor.

The 2013 Grand Tour Desjardins and its thousands of cyclists will pedal through Ontario instead of Maine, but Gascon said that the group hopes to reschedule a Maine trip sometime in the future.

On Thursday, representatives from Velo Quebec, Maine’s congressional delegation, state officials, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, and Customs and Border Protection held an hour-long conference call to get more specifics about the problem and to try to figure out a solution to the impasse. Though none was immediately identified, call participants said that the different parties all wanted to come together to bring the Canadian cyclists to Maine, in part with a mind to the economic jolt that the traveling Grand Tour would provide to its host communities along the route.

“That’s what we’re here for, to make sure that we expedite international travel within the constraints of the law,” Benson-Fuller said. “We know the importance of not only border safety but also the economy.”

According to Benson-Fuller, her agency works closely with local authorities and other stakeholders in order to facilitate business and international travel, including cross-border events such as parades, biathlons, the Can-Am sled dog races and more. The same strictures apply to Americans who want to do business in Canada.

“It’s not that we don’t want anybody to come,” she said. “We just need to adhere to the law.”

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of people who want to do business in the United States to make sure they have the proper documentation, she said.

“The United States has been and continues to be a welcoming nation,” she said, adding that her agency has an important role to play. “[It] not only protects U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents in the country but also wants to ensure the safety of our international travelers who come to visit, study and conduct legitimate business in our country.”

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