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.
Map illustrating 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.
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.