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

“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.

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.”

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.

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

Installation of exhibition at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, 1995


March: 843, oil pastel on paper, 6" x 6", 1994

March: 841, oil pastel on paper, 6" x 6", 1994

March: 867, oil pastel on paper, 6" x 6", 1994



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

Outstanding boundary disputes between Canada and the United States:

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.