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July/August 2010 issue

The Canada-U.S. Border

Following 9/11 the old hello-and-a-wave across the border is long gone in Stanstead, Quebec.
Photo: Martin Beaulieu
Video See photos of how people live on the borderline in Stanstead, Quebec.
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Multimedia Discover more videos, interactive features and photo essays about the Canada-U.S. border.
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  • 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.
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  • Smuggler’s Inn

    At Smuggler’s Inn, guests are encouraged to watch cross-border smuggling from the comfort of their rooms.
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  • 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. Read more »
  • Ontario’s Elvis Festival

    The King comes to Collingwood in a cross-border cultural exchange. Read more »
  • Multimedia

    Discover more videos, interactive features and photo essays about the Canada-U.S. border.
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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.

Stanstead Map
See how the border cuts through the town of Stanstead, Quebec.
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.

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.

“Across the street, a U.S. Border Patrol agent in a pickup watches us with no expression.”
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.

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 anarchy.

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:
Photo Club
View Henrietta Haniskova’s fashion photos from Collingwood’s Elvis Festival and read a one-on-one interview 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.
Border Technology
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.
Evolution of the Canada-U.S. Border
See how the border between Canada and the U.S. has evolved over the past three centuries.

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Comments on this articleView all comments (15) | Leave a comment

Sad it has come to this. We have the same over reaction by the US Enforcement officials. As a place cut off from the rest of the US, with BC as our main source of everything, we also suffer from these heavy handed tactics

Submitted by Sad it has on Saturday, July 26, 2014

I am a graduate of Stanstead College, I experienced the easy going nature of the border guards first hand in the 1970s, as I used to travel on foot across the border regularly to return to the U.S. for visits. I was present during the period in which security concerns were just beginning to surface; most surprising about this was it was initiated by Canada due to the Montreal Olympics. The "bar" was set in place to protect athletes from the travesty of the Munich Olympic debacle. Valid or not, safety concerns have been at the forefront for 40 years.

Submitted by Louis Brien on Monday, April 21, 2014

I was born in Rock Island 1941 and grew up in Graniteville. I went to school in Beebe Quebec. I have tried all possible routes to find out the year that the old school was torn down and replaced with the Beebe Intermediate School. It is next to impossible to find any info on the Three Villages as I knew them from 1940 - 1960. If you could help me with the dates I would appreciate it. Thank you.

Submitted by Betty ( Ellis ) Jacklin on Saturday, February 15, 2014

Could someone please point me in the direction of the 1955 Canadian National Geographic film? I'd like to view this for myself. Thankss!

Submitted by CKM on Friday, December 27, 2013

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...

Submitted by Mr FaV on Tuesday, September 10, 2013

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.

Submitted by Annie on Wednesday, August 21, 2013

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.

Submitted by bryan on Sunday, June 30, 2013

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.

Submitted by Stuart Friedman on Saturday, July 7, 2012

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!

Submitted by Clinton on Friday, May 18, 2012

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.

Submitted by Bonnie Stevens on Friday, November 11, 2011

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