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July/August 2010 issue

The Canada-U.S. Border

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.
Video Read more about border disputes, boundary markers and an art project on the 49th parallel.
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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.
    Read more »
  • Smuggler’s Inn

    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. 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.
    View now »

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.

49th Parallel







Using the idea of the border, artist Gregor Turk created works for his 49th Parallel Project.
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.

“People need to know that when they cross that boundary, things are different.”
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.

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.”

A border of the imagination

Atlanta-based multimedia artist Gregor Turk spent a good part of a year traveling the 49th parallel by foot and bicycle, creating artwork and documentary video. His resulting exhibition was designed to question the “artificial and seemingly arbitrary aspects” of this famous border. View his work online.

Outstanding boundary disputes

Books on the Canada–U.S. border

Men and Meridians, by Don W. Thomson (volumes 1 to 3; 1966-69)

Between Friends/Entre Amis (National Film Board; 1976)

A Good and Wise Measure, by Francis M. Carroll (2001)

Arc of the Medicine Line, by Tony Rees (2007)

Sod marks the spot

In the 1870s, earthen mounds were built on the prairies to mark the Canada­–U.S. international boundary. Beginning in 1909, the IBC began using cast-iron posts as markers, placing each within view of the next. Mountain ranges have always presented a special challenge. Early surveyors had to carry the iron posts to their destination in three sections, each weighing 30 kilograms.

Sharing the load

The IBC is led by two commissioners appointed by their respective governments. The commissioners have their own staff and budget, although the work is allocated equally between the two. The Canadian section operates on a budget of $2.4 million, with a full-time staff of seven; the United States section on a budget of US$1.9 million with a staff of six.

Watch your fence posts

The international boundary has been defined by more than 20 agreements, conventions and treaties, so disagreements are rare. If landowners plant a fence post within three metres of the line, they get a friendly visit from the IBC.

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 steep slopes.

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 for everybody.”

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:
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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