July/August 2010 issue
Following 9/11 the old hello-and-a-wave across the border is long gone in Stanstead, Quebec.
Photo: Martin Beaulieu
||See photos of how people live on the borderline in Stanstead, Quebec.
||Discover more videos, interactive features and photo essays about the Canada-U.S. border.
Defining the Canada-U.S. Border
On the frontier between Canada and the United States, weed whackers and wile keep the boundary clear and quiet. Read more
At Smuggler’s Inn, guests are encouraged to watch cross-border smuggling from the comfort of their rooms. Read more
First Nations’ Border Struggles
In a land with no lines, how do you define the end of one territory and the beginning of another? Read more
Lynx: The Cross-border Cat
Lynx don’t care about the line between Ontario and Minnesota, and researchers on both sides are starting to pay attention. Read more
Stanstead on the Borderline
Boosting security in the border town of Stanstead, Quebec, divides a peaceful community.
Ontario’s Elvis Festival
The King comes to Collingwood in a cross-border cultural exchange. Read more
Discover more videos, interactive features and photo essays about the Canada-U.S. border.
Stanstead: A Town on the Border
Efforts to boost security on the Canada-U.S. border brings a bad case of insecurity to a famously laid-back border town.
By Derek Lundy with Photography by Martin Beaulieu
The trail behind Gordie Douglas’s metalworking shop winds up the hill to
an old tractor, and then it peters out. From there, we walk a narrow path up
through the trees until we reach what looks like the clear-cut that marks the
boundary between Canada and the United States. Gordie tells us it’s better
not to cross the line. He says there are sensors in the ground and maybe cameras
hidden in the trees. The last time a guy he knew walked across the line
nearby, the U.S. Border Patrol chopper was overhead in two minutes, and some
witless creep with a bullhorn was shouting down at the guy, telling him to
report to the patrol post right friggin’ now or he’d be subject to stiff penalties
under the law. What crap, says Gordie. The guy was going over to visit a friend.
He’d been doing it for years; he’d walk across into the States, have a few beers
and walk back. It was much easier than driving all the way around. Now, the
Border Patrol “buddies” (a local term expressing contempt for someone) were
all over it. The guy’s a dual citizen, for Chrissake, born in the U.S.A.
I’m in Stanstead, Que., which, together with Derby Line, Vermont, forms one town divided by the
Canada–U.S. boundary. As part of my research for a book on America’s
boundaries with Mexico and Canada, I’m riding a Kawasaki KLR650 motorcycle through
the borderlands that lie along the length of each boundary. My friend Steve Baker lives just outside
Stanstead and is showing me around.
|See how the border cuts through the town of Stanstead, Quebec.|
In Stanstead, 160 kilometres southeast of Montréal,
the boundary is always butting in, getting in the way. But for long after the towns were founded in the
late 1700s, the boundary line was meaningless. Roads crossed it with their own commonsensical logic.
Houses were built right on top of the boundary — a family might cook dinner in the United States and
eat it in Canada. River mills were set up so that they straddled the line, allowing people from both sides
to use them. In 1904, in memory of her husband Carlos Haskell, Martha Stewart Haskell built the
Haskell Free Library and Opera House on the international boundary so that everyone could use that
too. The boundary line runs down the middle of the reading room. An entire tool-and-die factory was
established with half the building in Canada and half in the United States. If you’d wanted to give
future border security guards nightmares, the whole place could not have been set up any better.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is tightening the noose. The old
hello-and-a-wave across the border is long gone. New agents have gradually replaced many of the
regulars who had lived here for years and weren’t prepared to treat Jim the plumber or their grade-three
teacher as if they were potential terrorists. Now, anyone can be searched or taken aside for secondary
questioning — or harassed by armed guys shouting at them out of choppers with bullhorns. The U.S.
government has blocked off virtually all of the side roads running across the international boundary
line within the twin towns. That really enraged the locals. And the people of Stanstead and Derby Line,
many of them dual citizens, resent the new passport requirement. They may just decide to cross the line
elsewhere, whenever and wherever they damn well feel like it.
|“Across the street, a U.S. Border Patrol agent in a pickup watches us with no expression.”
I ask Mark Henry, a public affairs officer for the
U.S. Border Patrol’s Swanton Sector, for the official
view. He admits that Stanstead/Derby Line presents
a “unique challenge.”
“Our goal is to gain operational control of our
nation’s borders,” he says, and in Stanstead, “that has
necessitated closing a couple of the unguarded roads
there. [Security gates were installed in September
2009.] But we did that only after long discussion
with the community.”
To get into the front door of the public library,
Steve and I walk past a border pylon plunked into the
sidewalk. Across the street, a U.S. Border Patrol
agent in a pickup watches us with no expression. A
few strides, and we turn left through the library
entrance into the reading room, past the reference
desk. Stepping across a strip of electrical tape on the
floor, we walk out of the United States and back into
Canada, where most of the books are shelved. It’s
surprisingly fun. We’re filled with glee, as if we’ve
broken a taboo and gotten clean away with it. The
librarians, who have seen all of this many, many
times before, watch us with surprising tolerance and
good humour. They, too, seem happy with the smallscale
In the attached opera house, the performances
take place in Canada, while most of the audience sits
in the United States. During the Vietnam War, men
who had fled to Canada to avoid the draft would
come to the library to visit their families. As long as
they stayed on the Canadian side of the black line,
their sanctuary was intact.
The back door of the opera house was a fire escape
that could be opened into Canada. But drug mules
were taking advantage of the building as a transfer
point, switching backpacks or briefcases inside and
slipping out the back door into Canada. Now, the
back door is kept locked.
One of the main official border crossings here is
at the intersection of Rue Principale and Beebe
Plain Road. The Canadian and American customs
buildings lie kitty-corner, 20 metres across from
each other. Narrow Canusa (CANada-USA) Street
branches off in between, the houses on its two sides
in different countries. Steve knows a guy on the
Canadian side who is good friends with an
American across the street. They used to cross over
all the time to chat or to borrow tools or a lawn
mower or to have a beer together. They still do
that, says Steve, except that now they do it after
dark. They may have to stop, though. There’s word
that the Border Patrol is planning to scan the street
with night-vision cameras.
Steve’s friend Gordie takes us out onto nearby
Lac Memphrémagog in his new inboard runabout.
We head south and cut the engine close to the
invisible border, which runs through the lake. There
is a U.S. Border Patrol boat hanging out behind the
small island just ahead of us, says Gordie. We drift
around for a while discussing how it doesn’t matter
what the Americans do: if bad guys can’t bring dope
or whatever they want to bring across here, they can
always bring it or them across somewhere. You can
make it a little more inconvenient but there’s just no
way you can stop it.
“You have to try, though, don’t you think?” I say.
“You can’t just leave the border wide open.”
“It’s wide open anyways,” says Gordie, and he laughs.
Text adapted by arrangement with Knopf Canada, an
imprint of the Knopf Canada Publishing Group (division of
Random House of Canada Limited), from Borderlands:
Riding the Edge of America by Derek Lundy. Martin
Beaulieu is a Montréal-based photojournalist.
Related content and resources:
View Henrietta Haniskova’s fashion photos from Collingwood’s Elvis Festival and read a
with the photographer.
Drawing the Border
Read about how it took almost a century
of negotiation and compromise to establish the world’s longest undefended border.
Discover high-tech security on the border as a globetrotting adventurer takes a hike with his family through Waterton Lakes National Park
into the U.S.
|Comments on this article||View all comments (11) | Leave a comment|
I'm Canadian and I was standing on the Canadian side filming houses and stuff on the US side when a US border patrol walkd over and asked : What are you doing filming US establishments. Told him it was nothing - I didn't mean anything by it - I was a tourist, to which he responded : and why were you filming at the other border crossing? Free trade, did you say? Wasn't that bad od an experience though - but I never returned...
I'm one of those bordertown dual citizens. Grew up in Stanstead, had Vermont friends, went to the Drive In in Derby Line. Grandmother, Mother, and all of us have moved back and forth across that line all of our lives. Locals know to report. Gates do not bother us, American and Canadian border guards know us and treat us well. It's never been a impediment to the two communities, which really are one community without the constrictions. Most of which exist in outsider's perceptions.
After decades of normality the department of homeland security has 'Berlin Walled" this community fortunately the number of terrorists caught in this town has made it all worthwhile.
What about simply moving the border outside the city on both sides like the international peace park in North Dakota/Manitoba? Either side can drive into the area, but you clear customs when leaving from either side.
I'd love to see a completely open border (like the EU has inside the Schengen) but Canada's asylum rules might be a sticking point as would the US attitude towards guns.
The United States has bigger problems to worry about than a small peaceful town. The United States can't keep the Mexican border safe so why worry about this peaceful area? Like I said already the United States has bigger problems they should be worrying about!
I use to live on Canusa Street when I was about 9 years old. Our neighbours with their American Flags on the front of their homes always had different school holidays than we did. I noticed that when I was a kid. We always crossed the Street to go play with them. And, the Customs Officers on both sides of Canusa were always friendly... back then.
Lines of the mind. Closing the barn doors after the horses have escaped. Every one of the 9/11 attackers entered the States with permission of the U.S. government using government facilities… not slinking surreptitiously across the border through the reading room of a small town library.
Hiding out behind islands, in-ground motion sensors, hovering helicopters, spying on neighbours sharing a beer together… in the nine years since 9/11, how many nefarious terrorists have been nabbed crossing the street from Stanstead into Derby Line? Wouldn’t a massive wall down the middle of the town with spotlights, razor wire and patrolling armed guards ready to fire serve the same purpose and be more effective? Could that be any more – or less - ludicrous?
The Canadian Geographic film of 1955 prophetically acted as a snapshot of the past while nervously suggesting a future scenario no one could have imagined at the time. It’s one thing to slap down electrical tape to point out an imaginary line it’s quite another to effectively divide a community along ideological and political lines.
One question not addressed by the Canadian Geographic coverage is: Are the Canadian border agencies just as vigilant and reactionary as their U.S. counterparts in enforcing such a grievous act like exchanging a lemon-poppyseed cake with the folks across the street? Might one expect a Canadian SWAT team in a Zodiac to burst out from behind a rock to descend upon Grandpa and the grandkids from Vermont as they cast their lines for panfish?
Parenthetically, what WOULD be the reaction by Americans be IF Canada built an Israeli-style wall between the two countries? Could it be seen as a defiant sentiment of “Don’t trust US? We don’t trust YOU”? With subsequent hard feelings and ‘righteous’ indignation?
No one’s suggesting addressing security isn’t in everybody’s best interests. But in doing so, it needs to be remembered of what’s actually being defended: an imaginary dotted line that not only separates towns, but friends and families as well.
On a governmental level, that might not seem significant however - on a very human scale - dividing and alienating people is what led to the security measures in the first place.
I never heard of Stanstead untilhearing about the arena that is to be built in honor of Pat Burns, the only coach in the history of the National Hockey League to have won the Jack Adams trophy as Coach of the Year on three seperate ocassions. Way to go Pat
The writer displays a juvenile attitude I wasn't expecting to see in Canadian Geographic. I suspect the US Border Patrol agent believes he is doing his part to protect his country's interests. To call him a "witless creep" is to betray a childish perspective on a post-911 world. As for Canadian Geographic, I don't think I'll be back anytime soon.
I would say that the border patrolman was bang on.The B.C. gov't does very little to prosecute B.C. bud smugglers. The proceeds of crime are worth too much to the B.C. economy. Without the growers exporting and bringing in the U.S. cash the province would be in rough shape.