• Created in 1908, the Canada–U.S. boundary spans 8,891 kilometres of mostly forested terrain. (Photo: ©istockphoto.com/FotografiaBasica)

Boundaries hold a certain fascination. Take the boundary between Canada and the United States, one that attracts all manner of human initiative. A few years back, Canadians Dan Jacobson and wife Deng Yingyu decided to travel the length of the line between Lake of the Woods and the Continental Divide to pose next to boundary markers and snap photos. Atlanta multimedia artist Gregor Turk took that one step further, spending a good part of a year travelling the 49th parallel by foot and bicycle, creating artwork and a documentary video. His resulting exhibition was designed to question the “artificial and seemingly arbitrary aspects” of this famous border.

In fact, the Canada–United States boundary is anything but arbitrary. Just ask Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock. In his memoir On the Front of Life, he wrote that to understand relations between Americans and Canadians, you need only “come to Lake Memphremagog in July and go out bass fishing and hook up the International Boundary itself.”

We don’t suggest you do that; the good folks at the International Boundary Commission (IBC) would not be amused. It is their job to ensure the boundary is rigidly defined, faithfully demarcated and self-evidently clear for all to see. A quiet but remarkably effective bilateral body, the IBC has been the keeper of the line for the past 100 years.

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 Strait of Juan de Fuca on the Pacific Ocean, and from Dixon Entrance on the Pacific Ocean 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 1,000 survey control sites and keeps a six-metre-wide clear vista along the land boundary line. And how does it keep that boundary clear and quiet? With a shrewd mixture of technology, weed-whackers and skill.

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 or pass through Canadian Customs and Immigration in a foreign airport. By contrast, a boundary is resolutely fixed; it is, in the words of Brian Ballantyne, Advisor to Canada’s IBC Commissioner, an “impossibly thin membrane, phenomenal in length and height but with no width.” For a border, definition is crucial. For a boundary, definition is important but it is the act of demarcation that is all-important. “It’s essential to have a clear and well-marked boundary for law enforcement, customs and immigration, and public notice,” says IBC Canadian Commissioner Peter Sullivan. “People need to know that when they cross that boundary, things are different.”

Unlike international boundaries in Europe, the Canada–U.S. boundary was fixed on paper before it became defined on the ground. When the IBC was created in 1908 by a treaty between Canada and the U.S., the straight-line boundary between the two countries was already surveyed. The IBC was needed to mark the boundary on land and across waterways, maintain precise geographic positions from which the exact location of the boundary could be determined, and to keep that boundary clear to avoid uncertainties that would lead to dispute.

By all accounts, the IBC has done an admirable job as a bilateral body, despite the seemingly convoluted governance structure. It is led by two commissioners appointed by the respective governments. The U.S. commissioner is appointed by the President and reports to the U.S. Secretary of State. The Canadian commissioner is appointed by Order in Council. On policy issues, he reports to the Department of Foreign Affairs but operationally the position sits within Natural Resources Canada. Each commissioner has their own staff, equipment and budget, although work is allocated equally between the two. The Canadian section of the IBC operates on an annual budget of $2.4 million, with a full-time staff of seven and casual seasonal staff of 10.

Aside for regular online meetings, twice a year, the commissioners meet in Ottawa or Washington to discuss work plans and lingering issues. To maintain the required six-metre vista along the entire border, they are guided by a 15-year management plan that prioritizes work on 20 boundary segments according to the rate of growth of vegetation and the level of human activity. Of the almost 9,000 kilometres of boundary, 2,173 kilometres 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 cleared from brush and overgrowth every five years. In the prairies and along the 141st meridian separating Alaska and Yukon, vistas can be left alone for longer periods.

Part of the work plan also involves replacing damaged boundary markers or adding new markers. When the IBC first started its work between 1909 and 1913, it used cast iron posts and placed each within view of the next. As you would expect, mountain ranges presented a special challenge. Surveyors had to pack iron posts in three sections, each weighing 30 kilograms, and carry them to their destination. Today, there are about 8,000 boundary markers, mainly 1.5-metre-high obelisks, range towers in waterways, brass plaques on bridges, and conical monuments in remote mountain ranges.

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 up to the 60th parallel is rugged and plagued by brutal weather; in the early years two men lost their lives while working on survey parties. To work on these sections today, full-blown expeditions have to be 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 these jobs, you better have a high tolerance for mosquitoes and have 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 505-square-kilometre national park that straddles the borders of 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 the space. Peter Sullivan provides the cold hard truth: “The laws are different between the two areas,” he says. “There are two administrative authorities. Plus the law enforcement folks have concerns. They need to know that the boundary is clearly marked. In the case of legal action, they can’t get a conviction if someone can argue that the boundary wasn’t clearly marked.”

Given that the boundary has been defined by some 20 agreements, conventions and treaties, disagreements are rare. There do remain a handful of unresolved boundary issues that are currently in the hands of the Department of Foreign Affairs and its U.S. counterpart. Most of the disputes involve disagreement over offshore boundaries. They include Machias Seal Island between the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine; the Beaufort Sea; the Dixon Entrance between B.C. and Alaska, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Vancouver Island and Washington State.

As for smaller disputes involving landowners encroaching on the line? Before 1960, this was not even a question. “Line” houses were always a feature of the boundary, particularly in the 1920s. This was the heyday of Prohibition in the U.S., when houses right on the boundary featured bars with liquor and the bartender on the Canadian side and customers on the American side. In 1960 the IBC was given the power to approve all construction within the vista and since then, Sullivan says, disputes with landowners have been rare. When sticky issues arise, the issues are generally dealt with by the two commissioners.

Under the International Boundary Act, you need permission from the IBC to construct within three metres of the boundary, a legal requirement that some people, and even municipalities, may not know. “Most disputes have to do with landowners constructing houses or fences too close to boundary,” says Sullivan.

The watchword at the IBC now is “engagement” with concerned groups such as landowners, municipalities, enforcement agencies (such as the RCMP, Parks Canada and Customs and Immigration), and First Nations groups. The IBC is particularly active with outreach in developed areas of the boundary such as Estcourt, Que., and Estcourt Station, Maine; Stanstead, Que., and Derby Line, Vermont; and Surrey, B.C. and Blaine, Washington. The commissioners themselves visit key boundary areas several times a year and meet with stakeholders.

Along with greater engagement, more boundary markers are being erected in heavily populated sections. In B.C.’s Lower Mainland, where sprawling sub-divisions are approaching the boundary, 24 new cement obelisks now provide an even clearer record of where one country starts and the other ends. As well, fibreglass markers are being installed to not only mark the boundary but provide information on development restrictions and who to contact.

“For the past couple of years, working in high human activity areas, we’ve tried to avoid situations where people build anything close to boundary,” says Sullivan. “We’ve created a boundary enhancement plan for these areas, and the key is communication. We maintain a presence on the ground to talk to local landowners. We try to be collaborative, and the majority of people understand. We run into the odd issue with landowners but also try to come up with a solution that works for everybody.”

The Aroostook Valley Country Club is a great example of compromise in action. Located on the New Brunswick–Maine border 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 pro shop and parking lot in the U.S. 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 developed a novel solution to maintain the look of the course. It was decided that younger trees would be moved close to the encroaching trees and allowed to mature. Once those trees are fully grown, the older trees will be removed. “It allows everyone to meet objectives in the long term,” says Sullivan. “This approach makes our job all that much easier.”

The IBC is also building a sophisticated Geographic Information System (GIS) that will produce maps after each field season. The maps not only help plan field missions, track vegetation types and re-growth rates, they also facilitate communication with stakeholders. The GIS will no doubt help the IBC continue its work more effectively. “The IBC represents a true sharing of resources, intellect and goodwill between the two sovereign nations,” Brian Ballantyne once wrote, “with little fanfare, less hoopla and no flag waving.”

There may be plenty of friendliness along the boundary and in the confines of the IBC, but be warned: If you accidently snag a boundary marker while fishing in Leacock country, make sure you practise catch and release.


International Boundary Commission
Natural Resources Canada Surveyor General Branch
Between Friends/Entre Amis online exhibit
Dan Jacobson’s trip along the Boundary from Lake of the Woods to the Continental Divide
Gregor Turk’s 49th Parallel Project