Sunday, June 28, 2009

One Step Over the Line - Part 1

This and next week’s essays focus literally on the "edge of America," in this case the northern border with Canada. Join me as I take a step over the line.

The United States and Canada have shared the longest undefended border in the world - over 5000 miles compared with the more restricted border with Mexico at approximately 1900 miles. Jim Lynch, in his very recent novel Border Songs, refers to the northern US boundary as "the nonchalant border, a geographical handshake." But all this changed on the morning of September 11, 2001. Even so, there are less than one thousand US Border Patrol personnel stationed along the entire US-Canadian border. Contrast this with the almost 12,000 agents stationed along the border with Mexico. Nevertheless, the border with Canada has long been viewed as an almost "nonsensical" border. A few questions from the friendly agent and a polite wave to continue. No more!

I have long been fascinated by borders. "Interesting thing about borders. Before you cross them you must stand on a threshold," Joy E. Stock, the editor of Wild River Review recently wrote. "And at that threshold you have a decision to make: Do you go forward or do you turn back?" This threshold, and the choice whether to cross it, presents one with a rather unique dilemma when one visits the US-Canadian border at Derby Line, Vermont / Stanstead, Québec. Here the border runs directly through both communities, cutting across streets, yards, and even some buildings.

With a population of just over 3000, Stanstead, created in 1995 by the merger of three picturesque villages, Stanstead Plain, Rock Island and Beebe Plain, has a rich history and architectural heritage and is considered by some as one of the most picturesque towns in all of Québec. This area was settled shortly after the American Revolution by loyalists fleeing north into what would become an English-speaking enclave known as the Eastern Townships. Derby Line, on the American side, is much smaller, with a population hovering near 800. Main Street is wide and tree-lined with many large homes reminding the visitor of the community’s rich past. As it approaches the border, however, the road narrows through a rather worn-out downtown, the only activity focused on the US port of entry and customs station and a combination gas station and convenience store across the street. For most of their shared history, Derby Line and Rock Island (Stanstead) have behaved like a single community. The drinking water for both towns comes from wells in Canada which is then stored in a reservoir in the United States and distributed by Canadians. Same goes for sewage although I can’t say for certain who get’s the best end of the stick here. The realities of the 21st Century have changed all this . . . perhaps forever.

I first learned about Derby Line’s unique lot from my father when I was a kid; one of his army buddies from the war grew up there and I vowed that one day I would go there and see the place for myself. "How and when do we make the border crossings that change our lives?" Stock writes. "For, in many cases we have no choice, and cross them we must." That was the way I felt about Derby Line. Sally Ann and I finally had a chance during the summer of 1978 as we drove north to a vacation in Canada. We crossed the border there but did not have time to stop and explore. I have returned many times since, but last month the two of us had a chance to return together.

As we approached the border I was immediately struck by the increased security. Streets that use to run across the border with little or no fanfare (the only way you knew you were in one country or the other was whether the those red octagonal signs said "STOP" or "ARRÊT") are now marked with large signs telling drivers and pedestrians to report to the respective customs station if they cross the line, either intentionally or by mistake. So you need to be careful when you wander the streets or you might find yourself in a foreign country without realizing it. That is until a border patrol agent stops you and asked you whether you have reported to the customs station. And beginning June 1 you now need a passport to enter or reenter the United States. So you could end up SOL! Now there is even talk of stepping up security measures to permanently block or close-off unguarded streets shared by both communities, further dividing neighbors, family and friends.

Luckily, the rules are a bit different in instances where the international boundary cuts through buildings, or what is referred to hereabouts as "line houses." Residents or visitors to these buildings need not report if they cross the line once inside. This is only necessary if they exit that building to a different country than the one they entered the building from. This rule is nowhere more evident than at the Queen Anne Revival Haskell Free Library and Opera House, which sits squarely on the border. It was built here intentionally in 1901 and opened in 1904, a gift to the community by Mr. Carlos Haskell, a prominent local American businessman, and Martha Stewart Haskell, his Canadian-born wife. For over a century it has been used by residents from both sides of the border. The building’s two entrances, one leading into the library, and the other heading upstairs to the opera house, are located on the American side of the building, and Canadians must cross the border. Several security cameras operated by border patrol agents in both countries are posted on poles outside to monitor who goes in from where, and where they go when they leave. Library patrons are now warned not to park on the Canadian side of the building if they're American, or on the American side if they're Canadian. Play by the rules and you are fine.

We parked near the US customs house and walked the two blocks to the library. Main Street curves into Caswell Avenue which parallels the border. At the intersection of Caswell and Lee Street is a traditional granite border monument and a wide painted stripe across the street denoting the exact location of the international boundary. Here, too, are the warning signs and the security cameras. If there was once little fanfare in crossing the border to visit the library, there is no mistake where the border is today, or what will happen should you choose to ignore the warnings. Two green and white border patrol cars were parked at the intersection should someone try to push the envelope.

You enter the library while still on US soil, but once inside you are constantly reminded of the border by a black tape line on the floor. To your left is the Kenneth Baldwin International Reading Room where you can sit in one country while the person next to you is in another country. During the fall and winter of 1976, Howard Frank Mosher used to bring the manuscript of his novel Disappearances, a story about a Prohibition-era French-Canadian whisky smugglers, to the Haskell Library and purposefully chose a table straddling the border in the reading room. Proceed straightaway down the entrance hall and a small US and Canadian flag mark where a bookcase is divided by the border. Books on one side are in English, other side French. Arrive at the circulation desk and you are in Canada, Step around to the bathroom and you are back in the United States. Once you are inside you are free to move back and forth across the border at your leisure. The painted line does serve a practical purpose, however; it helps determine which portions of the building are covered by American or Canadian insurance policies and subjected to different building and fire and safety codes. The librarians are either citizens of the United States or Canada, or both . . . so-called "double-enders," – Canadians born in the US making them eligible for US citizenship – and probably bilingual.

One of the librarians on duty provided us with a quick history of the library before taking us upstairs so that we could see the opera house. Here, too, the black tape line indicates the border’s location. The entrance, lobby, and ticket office, and much of the theater seating lie within the United States. The stage and backstage areas are situated wholly within Canada. There is an urban myth that the Beatles came to the Haskell Opera House to meet and perform since legal problems kept members of the band from entering the United States. There is no truth to the story, but I would have loved to have had a ticket to that concert. Having crossed back and forth across the border at least two dozen times in the space of an hour, we finally left the library and walked back along Caswell Avenue. No need to stop at the customs house as we were never officially in Canada.

The Haskell Library and Opera House is not the only border anomaly in the area, but the other is fraught with problems. A couple miles to the west is the community of Beebe Plain, where the granite used to fabricate the international boundary monuments, is quarried. There the border literally runs down the southern edge of rue Canusa (Canada-USA). Those residing on the north side of the street are Canadian; those on the south side of the street are American. Although their yards and driveways lie within the United States, the street lies entirely within Canada. Each time the Americans leave their property by car they have to report to a border station at the end of the street - the US station if they are turning left, into the United States, or the Canadian station, if they are turning right, into Canada. Those on the Canadian side of the street need only report if they are entering the United States. Folks used to cross the street to visit. Now they must register with customs. Failure to do so can result in arrest and prosecution.

In addition to the peculiarities of the international border (different governments, cultures, currencies, systems of measurement), residents on each side of the line have to deal with another major problem that further divides their communities. Although the villages now making up Stanstead, as well as the rest of Eastern Townships, were once bastions of English language and culture in an otherwise French-speaking Québec, the population of l'Estrie (the Québécois designation for the Townships, has been predominantly francophone for more than a hundred years. Due to the more recent stringent language laws in Québec which recognize only French as the province’s official language, all signs are, and must be, in French, and this is the language heard most often on the street. Bilingualism is still relatively prevalent near the border, but less so the farther you travel north of the border.

There are some who have referred to the US-Canada boundary as an almost nonsensical border, one that separates two peoples who share a common language, culture, world view, and devotion to democracy. I am not sure this was ever true although it might look like that to some who have never really examined the differences up close. It has never been as simple as stepping across an arbitrary line drawn by some treaty. There is much more to it than that. There have always been differences, and they seem to be growing in magnitude and their consequences. This was never made so clear to me as during my recent visit to Derby Line, Vermont. The step over the line has become a much bigger one.
NEXT WEEK: One Step Over the Line - Part 2

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