July/August 2010 issue
A boundary is not a border. A border is fluid: you enter “Canada,” for example, when you walk into a Canadian Embassy in a foreign country. A boundary is resolutely fixed.
||Read more about border disputes, boundary markers and an art project on the 49th parallel.
||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.
What is the Canada-U.S. Border, Really?
On the frontier between Canada and the U.S., weed whackers and wile keep the boundary clear and quiet.
By Alan Morantz
“But if anyone wants to understand our relations with one another better than history can tell or statistics teach … come to Lake Memphremagog in July and go out bass fishing and hook up the International Boundary itself.”
— Stephen Leacock in Last Leaves
We don’t suggest you do that. Try that cheeky Leacockian gambit today, and you’ll be swarmed by border
agents faster than you can say 9/11. This is, after all, the new normal on the Canada–U.S. frontier. Policy wonks call it the
“thickening border,” and by that, they are referring to the heightened security, surveillance and overall churlishness
that are now a hallmark of passage between the two countries.
But some will tell you that while the border may be thickening, the boundary is thinning. It is the argument
made by the Canadian and American commissioners, surveyors and geographic-information specialists at the
International Boundary Commission (IBC). Their job is to ensure that the Canada–U.S. boundary is rigidly defined,
faithfully demarcated and self-evidently clear for all to see, and they say good vibes rule the day.
|Using the idea of the border, artist Gregor Turk created works for his 49th Parallel Project.|
With little fanfare, the IBC has been the keeper of the line since 1908. And what a line. The Canada–U.S. boundary
stretches for 8,891 kilometres, from the St. Croix River on the Atlantic Ocean to the Juan de Fuca Strait on the Pacific
and from Dixon Entrance on the Pacific to the Arctic Ocean. It slices across woodland and prairie, travels up and down
mountain ranges, skims rivers and the Great Lakes and ever so politely tiptoes straight through a public library. The
IBC maintains more than 8,000 monuments and reference points and keeps a six-metre-wide clear vista along the land
boundary. And how does it keep that boundary clear and quiet? With weed whackers and wile.
|“People need to know that when they cross that boundary, things are different.”
A boundary is not a border. A border is fluid: you enter “Canada,” for example, when you walk into a
Canadian Embassy in a foreign country. A boundary is resolutely fixed; it is, in the words of Brian Ballantyne,
adviser to Canada’s IBC Commissioner Peter Sullivan, an “impossibly thin membrane, phenomenal in length and
height, but with no width.” For a border, definition is crucial. For a boundary, definition is a given, and it is the act of
demarcation that is all-consuming. “It’s important to have a clear and well-marked boundary for law enforcement,
customs and immigration and public notice,” says Sullivan, chatting in his Edmonton office. “People need to know
that when they cross that boundary, things are different.”
The Canadian and American sections of the IBC work together to make sure that difference is crystal-clear. To
maintain the six-metre vista, they are guided by a 15-year management plan that prioritizes work on 28 boundary
segments according to the rate of growth of vegetation and the level of human activity. Some 2,172 kilometres of the
boundary are forested, so there is a lot of work to do. The vista can get gnarly fairly quickly in verdant British Columbia
or near waterways, so those areas are given a good brush with chainsaws every five years. In the prairies and along the
141st meridian separating Alaska and the Yukon, vistas can be left alone for longer periods.
Given the varying conditions along the boundary, some sections pose particular challenges — some relating to
geography, others to politics. Southeastern Alaska close to Prince Rupert and up to the sixtieth parallel is rugged and
plagued by brutal weather; in the early years, two men lost their lives while surveying there. To work on these sections
today, full-blown expeditions are mounted. In some cases, camps are set up along the boundary, and when necessary,
equipment and monuments are dropped in by helicopter. If you’re thinking of applying for one of these jobs, you
better have a high tolerance for mosquitoes and a strong back to carry cement bags — and the water to make the cement in tarps — up
The political challenges may not be as physically daunting, but they cannot be ignored. Take Waterton-
Glacier International Peace Park, a 4,576-square-kilometre national park that straddles the boundary between Alberta
and Montana. The boundary cuts right through the heavily wooded and protected park, and some visitors are
rankled to see a clear-cut vista running through their beloved space. Sullivan provides the cold hard truth: “The laws are
different between the two areas. There are two administrative authorities. Plus the law enforcement folks have
concerns. In the case of legal action, it may be difficult to get a conviction if someone can argue that the boundary
wasn’t clearly marked.”
That need for facts on the ground is particularly important for those owning property on the frontier. Under the
International Boundary Commission Act, landowners require the permission of the IBC to build
anything within three metres of the boundary, a legal requirement that some people, and even municipalities, may not know. Still, says Sullivan, disputes with
landowners are rare. To make sure they stay rare, the IBC has launched a charm offensive with key groups, such as landowners, municipalities, enforcement
agencies and First Nations. They are focused particularly in developed areas of the
boundary, such as Estcourt, Que., and Estcourt Station, Maine; Stanstead, Que., and Derby Line, Vermont (see
page 36); and Surrey, B.C., and Blaine, Washington (see page 54). The commissioners themselves visit key boundary areas
several times a year and meet with the locals.
“We try to be collaborative, and the majority of people understand,” says Sullivan, who also acts as Surveyor
General of Canada Lands. “We run into the odd issue with landowners but try to come up with a solution that works
Case in point: the Aroostook Valley Country Club. Located on the New Brunswick–Maine boundary near
Grand Falls, N.B., the country club is in the odd position of having its 18-hole golf course and clubhouse in Canada
and its pro shop and parking lot in the United States. On a visit not long ago, IBC surveyors noticed that several old trees
were encroaching on the boundary vista. Rather than order the trees removed, the IBC and the country club are working
on a novel solution to maintain the look of the course. If the plan gets final approval, young trees would be moved
close to the encroaching trees and allowed to mature. Once those trees are fully grown, the old trees would be removed.
An elegant, mature workaround. Almost friendly. But be warned: there are limits. If you accidentally snag a boundary
marker while fishing in Leacock country, make sure you practise catch-and-release.
Senior editor Alan Morantz is author of Where Is Here? Canada’s Maps and the Stories They Tell.
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 (14) | Leave a comment|
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.
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.
Could someone please point me in the direction of the 1955 Canadian National Geographic film? I'd like to view this for myself. Thankss!
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.