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A late attempt to tighten America’s Canadian border

It is a bright sunny day in northern Vermont and I am entertaining a friend visiting the region for the first time in several decades. He is an experienced international traveler who has joined me touring Japan as well as many parts of the United States. I ask him if he has ever been to Canada. He mentions something about having visited Toronto and other parts of Ontario, but, NO, he replies, he has never visited Quebec. I can remedy that very quickly, I say, but NO he replies, his passport has expired and is back in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. No worries, I tell him, let’s visit the Haskell Free Library and Opera House in Derby Line and Stanstead, Quebec.

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Canusa Avenue: Canada on the right, US on the left

The border is virtually open between Derby Line and Stanstead. Back before 9/11, the border was a lot more open than today. When the two towns were founded in the late 1700s, the border was meaningless. The border was supposed to be at the 45th parallel a couple of miles south, but the surveyors using crude instruments and perhaps imbibing a bit too much whiskey or rum, wandered all over the place creating a border a bit farther north than intended.

Since the border when established didn’t mean much to anybody, Stanstead and Derby Line grew as one relatively small community. People moved back and forth as they pleased without any interference and virtually everybody had relatives and close friends in both countries. Because the best hospital in the region was in the vicinity of nearby Newport, Vermont, a Stanstead mother having a baby would rush across the border to the hospital, thus giving her child dual citizenship.

Many houses were built right on the border. A family might cook dinner in the United States, eat it in their dining room in Canada, and wash their hands back in the US. My son and I used to haunt an old antique store — you could buy an antique typewriter or adding machine in perfect shape for less than five US dollars –where the front of the store was in Vermont, but the back where all the goods were stored was in Canada. During a prolonged inquiry I would often cross the border as many as twenty or more times.

Haskell free libraryThe Haskell Free library is a place of wonder and intrigue. 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 purpose of the building was to create a place where people from both countries could join together in peaceful pursuits. There is a large theatre above the library with the stage in one country and much of the seating in the other. I once heard a story, possibly not true, of an actor wanted by authorities in the US who performed on stage before an audience that included several police who wanted to arrest him, but could not. The boundary line runs down the middle of the reading room.

The entrance to the library faces south and is on the American side. Large flowerpots have been placed on the nearby street entering Canada making it necessary for folks on the Canada side to park their cars on the north side of the building and walk across the boundary to enter. A watchful US border guard eyes them with a bored stare, but does nothing to interfere as long as they depart back into Canada. Recently when I visited the library I parked out front as I had always done in the past. The guard asked me to move my car to the back of the building. “But it’s in Canada!” I protested, but was told that was OK.

When entering the library, a few steps, and I turn left through the library entrance into the reading room, past the reference desk. The boundary line runs down the middle of the reading room. Stepping across a strip of electrical tape on the floor, I saunter of the United States and back into Canada, where most of the books are. I sit at their computer where half of the screen is in the US and the other half in Canada. I get up to use the rest room which involves reentering the US and reentering Canada.

In early December 2014 I entered Quebec and traveled down a lengthy road with perhaps the inevitable name of Canusa Avenue. While the street is itself mainly in Quebec, the houses and driveways on the south side are in the US. Every time an American-side resident pulls out of their driveway, they have crossed an international border and must report to the immigration office down the street. I have no idea how well this is enforced. If a person in the US crosses the narrow road to visit a friend directly across the street without reporting in, he is technically in violation of the law. I got out of my car on the Quebec side and deliberately walked across the street several times to take some pictures, but all was quiet. Nobody bothered me.

My impression is that while life has become more difficult for local residents with friends and relatives on both sides of the border, most people there have made the necessary adjustments. I talked to a local from Quebec in the library who said that while the border closing and enforcement is a nuisance, they all have the necessary documents and border guards are friendly. Community life does go on, though less easily than in the past. People can still cook in Canada and eat in the US as long as they stay on their own property.

250315IMG_0247 (3)As for my friend from Virginia, we arrived late on a Sunday afternoon when the library was closed. But we both crossed into Quebec at the border post outside the library without interference and I took a picture of him standing fully in Quebec for the first time. That kind of posturing is fine, but I hear that any drug smuggler crossing nearby would set off alarms in both lands. Even in the wide open days of the early 1970s my brother Eric and I visited Magog in Quebec and returned on an old dirt road which at the border said to report to customs if we had anything to declare. Since we had not bought anything, we drove into the US and headed home. A US border patrol car came right after us, but after ascertaining that we had bought nothing, politely drove away. Today the dirt road is blocked by a huge wire fence at the border and I would not dare to ignore border security signs.

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