Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Abrupt Transitions: What Country Am I Really In??? - Dispatches from Canada (or is it?)

Dateline: Trois-Rivière, Québec 

 After a week in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick I have finally arrived  in Québec - la belle province - and I am resting my weary head this evening along
the southern shore of the St. Lawrence River, in the realm of the Trifluvians, about half way between Québec City and Montréal.

I spent last night in
Edmundston, New Brunswick situated on the Canadian side of the St. John River opposite Madawaska, in Maine’s Aroostook County.  Just shy of the Québec border, Edmunston seemed an appropriate place to begin my exploration of the USA-Canadian border in northern New England (a ca. 800 mile long boundary between Lake Champlain, on the New York-Vermont border, and the Bay of Fundy on the Atlantic Ocean where Maine and New Brunswick meet).

The Treaty of Paris of 1783 formally ended the American Revolution and concluded peace between the infant United States and Great Britain.  It also established the original boundary between this country and British Canada to the north, from the Atlantic coast to the northwestern head of Connecticut River and then proceeding down the middle of that river in a generally southwesternly direction to the 45th Parallel of north latitude in what is today northern New Hampshire.  From there it continued due west along this parallel to the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York as surveyed in 1771-1773.

The area around Edmunston / Madawaska along the St. John River was the focal point of an intense yet bloodless border dispute between the United States and Great Britain in 1838-1839 known as the “Aroostook War.”   Although originally between the State of Maine and the Province of New Brunswick, this dispute eventually drew the attention of the US and British governments and led to the unilateral establishment of the Republic of Madawaska by American interests on the Canadian (British) side of the river.  Local residents still refer to Edmunston by its republican title and the republic’s flag is frequently on display.  Edmunston, although in New Brunswick, is mostly francophone and therefore a suitable place to transition into Québec where French is the only official languages.

The Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 eventually resolved both the local Aroostook War / Madawaska Republic dispute between Maine and New Brunswick, as well as redefining the international boundary separating British Canada from New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York.  It also resolved the Indian Stream Republic dispute on the border of New Hampshire and Québec, and the Vermont-Quèbec border at Fort Blunder situated at the outlet of the Rivière Richelieu to Lake Champlain.
[See http://lookingtowardportugal.blogspot.com/2009/07/one-step-over-line-part-2.html for additional information of the Indian Stream Republic.]

This morning after departing Edmunston I drove west along the St. John River on Route 102 for a few miles through a small panhandle of New Brunswick; the USA just a couple hundred feet away on my left.  I eventually turned northwest away from the river and drove through beautiful rolling countryside in full autumn splendor and dotted with deep azure blue lakes until I arrived in the Témiscouata Regional County Municipality of Québec.  From there I followed Route 289 - the "Route des Frontières" - to the south shore of the St. Lawrence River at Saint-Alexandre-de-Kamouraska.  Along the way I once again skirted the Canadian-US border running along the Rivière Saint-François from Rivière-Bleue to Pohénégamook (formerly Estcourt), Québec.  I will remain in Canada for a couple more days before I return to my native land although today I jumped the gun just a bit at Pohénégamook.  More on that in a moment.

The US-Canadian border provides a number of strange boundary anomalies, especially along the roughly 90-mile boundary separating Vermont and Québec.  This boundary, also referred to in some quarters as the “West Line,” is based in part on an earlier survey in 1771-1772 and was formally established in 1783 along the 45th Parallel, the line of latitude halfway between the Equator and the North Pole.  This boundary was later confirmed by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 which unfortunately did not take into consideration various boundary anomalies which have now been incorporated into the current official boundary recognized by both countries.  As a result the Vermont-Québec border deviates in some places by more than a mile beyond the 45th Parallel.

A 2006 essay published by the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) refers to international boundaries as “places of abrupt transition, where a conceptual cartographic line can manifest itself physically in many ways.”  This is probably no more evident than in Beebe Plain and Derby Line, two villages in the northern Vermont town of Derby which I plan to revisit tomorrow.  Both are situated directly on the USA-Canada international boundary opposite the municipality of Stanstead, Québec.  I first began visiting the Derby / Stanstead area regularly in 1994 after teaching a summer seminar at the University of Vermont, in Burlington.  I have always been fascinated by borderlands, and when I was young my father had told me about an old army buddy who came from Derby Line and lived in a house divided by the border.  Apparently he has a choice of serving in either the Canadian or the US Army during the war and chose the latter.  I had to see this for myself. 

In Beebe Plain, the half mile length of Canusa Street / rue Canusa runs along the border.  Houses on the south side of the street are in the USA while those on the north side are in Canada.  The entire roadway is Canadian territory.  To visit a neighbor across the street one must go to the end of the street where the respective border stations are located and show a passport and then return to the neighbor’s house on that side.  To go home one has to repeat the process.  It is probably easier just to wave and shout . . . in English or French depending on which side of the street one lives.  Consider, too, the fact that whenever American residents of Canusa Street pull out of their driveways they have left the USA and must report to the border posts at the end of the street.  Canadian residents of rue Canusa need not report for border inspection as long as they do not cross the line into the United States.

The dilemma of residing on this international boundary is further compounded where a few homes in Beebe Plain / Stanstead are situated directly on the line; homes where families eat in one country and sleep in another.  Fortunately a different set of rules applies and these residents are not required to report if they cross the line inside the building .  However, they must report to the respective border post if they leave the building into a different country than the one from which they entered the building.  It wasn’t always this way; customs officials in friendly neighboring countries knew who lived on Canusa Street and the border-straddling home and often turned a blind eye.  To add insult to injury, residents of homes straddling the border must pay property taxes in both countries. 

Jim Lynch, in his novel Border Songs, referred to the northern US boundary as "the nonchalant border, a geographical handshake."  Not anymore.  The reality of the USA-Canada border . . . long touted as the longest undefended border in the world where passports were not required and border formalities were frequently as informal as a wave and a smile . . . changed forever after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  Present security concerns now make it necessary to adhere to strict procedures.  US and Canadian customs agents can’t even go back and forth on official business unless they leave their weapons behind.  Only a few steps separate them yet it has become easier to communicate by telephone.  

Just a couple miles east of Beebe Plain on Québec Route 247 (an extension of rue Canusa) is Rock Island, another village within the Stanstead municipality facing Derby Line, Vermont.  Here, too, a few buildings and homes are bisected by the border.  The local library, shared by both towns, was intentionally built on the border at a time when Derby Line and Rock Island were joined at the hip and one was able to wander back and forth between countries without formality or concern.  Both entrances to the building lie in the USA as do the library’s foyer and offices.  The book stacks, a reading room, and the circulation desk are in Canada.  There is a line demarcating the border running through one of the reading rooms.  The toilet in the bathroom is in the USA; the toilet paper in Canada. [This was a subject of my September 19, 2013 blogpost.  http://lookingtowardportugal.blogspot.com/2013/09/good-restrooms-make-good-neighbors.html
Upstairs the opera house is also divided.  The stage is in Canada while most of the audience sits in the USA.  It all seems strange . . . but true.  Streets once shared by the two communities have been gated at the border point since 2009 when passports became necessary when passing thought he international boundary (they can be open and closed remotely to permit the passage of emergency vehicles).  Now many eyes, sensors  and cameras keep tabs on who is where and why , , , even library patrons from both countries although they are still allowed access to the building without having to first go through border formalities.  There are two fire escapes - one in each country - in case of an emergency. [The library is also the subject of a prior blogspot posting on June 28, 2009. http://lookingtowardportugal.blogspot.com/search?q=Derby+Line]
That being said, however, patrons are warned not to park on the Canadian side of the building if they’re American, or on the American side if they’re Canadian.  If they do, and they fail to report to customs, they may be subject to arrest.  All along the border one sees more of the familiar green and white US Customs and Border Patrol vehicles, as well as those of the Sûreté du Québec and the RCMP/GRC, on the Canadian side of the line.  A rumored friendly border has become deadly serious.  Even the once common photo-op of straddling the border can get you arrested.

The US-Canadian border has been particularly volatile this year following President [sic] Trump’s inauguration and his subsequent ill-advised and blatantly unconstitutional travel bans directed at residents of several predominantly Muslim countries.  Canadian authorities have reported that up to 500 individuals, many of them citizens of the banned countries in question already in the United States, are daily trying to flee the United States to see asylum in Canada.  How unfortunate that those who came to America’s shores to seek respite from terror, persecution, and violence must now search beyond America’s borders for such protections.  All the more unfortunate when these migrants have become so fearful of remaining in the United States that they seek to enter Canada by any means available to them, including illegal ones.  As a result, Canadian border authorities are also clamping down and enforcing laws and procedures to the letter.  The border has not been this confrontational since the War of 1812. 

So this is probably not the best time to do many close-up exploration of the US-Canadian frontier.  One false move, whether intentional or not, can have dire consequence.  Nevertheless, earlier today, as I was passing through Pohénégamook, Québec, I chanced upon another border anomaly . . . this one by far stranger than the others I have experienced and one I have wanted to visit for many years.  I am referring to the “American” town of Estcourt Station situated at the northernmost point in the State of Maine which has the third longest state border with Canada after Alaska and Michigan.  Some have claimed it is the northernmost point in the contiguous United States, but that honor goes to the Northwest Angle, situated in Lake of the Woods where northern Minnesota borders Manitoba; yet one more border anomaly resulting from the Webster-Ashburton Treaty.  And like the Estcourt Station, it can only be effectively reached by passing through Canadian territory.  Estcourt Station is, however, the northern-most point in the Eastern United States and the most isolated American border community in the 48 contiguous states. 

To call Estcourt Station, Maine an American town is a bit of a stretch.  It is hardly a town at all; just a single road - Rue de la Frontière - which like Canusa Street in Beebe Plain is situated entirely within Canada until it reaches the customs post at the far end of town.  The only public access is from Québec Route 289 at Pohénégamook (population ca. 3000).  The official population of Estcourt Station is four American summer residents who live in houses solely within US territory.  The remaining residents are Canadian citizens whose few homes are bisected by the border.  Technically an American town, residents have a Québec Area Code and receive their water and electricity from Canada.  There is twice weekly US postal delivery although the town mail boxes in the United States can only be accessed by passing through Canadian territory which requires reporting first to the Canadian border station. 

There are no commercial establishments save a filling station situated entirely in the United States which can only be reached by first reporting to the US border station a mile farther down Rue de la Frontière and then returning through Canadian territory to the station.  I am reminded of an incident that occurred here back in 2003.  A Canadian resident of Pohénégamook crossed into the United States at Estcourt Station in order to purchase cheaper gas (at the time 20-25% cheaper than in Canada).  The US border station was closed at the time and so the Canadian did not report.  He was nevertheless interdicted by the US Border Patrol and charged with entering the United States illegally.  They found a hunting rifle in the resident’s car (not an unusual occurrence in those parts) and he ended up spending a month in jail and the incident led to a high-level diplomatic dust-up between to otherwise friendly neighbors.

I arrived in Estcourt Station by the most direct route; driving several miles through the far northwestern strip of New Brunswick into Québec beyond Fort Kent, Maine, the closest American town.  To reach Estcourt Station directly through the United States would require a two-plus hour trip via private gravel logging roads which are difficult under the best of conditions.  Try it sometime during the winter.

There is a Canadian border station located in the middle of Estcourt Station (on Canadian territory, of course) at the access point from Québec Route 289.  Upon my arrival I reported to the station.  I had no plans to formally enter the United States, but I did want to visit the small park at the end of town on Rue de la Frontière which sits directly on the border. There is also a footbridge crossing the Rivière François, the only footbridge linking the two countries, and one must take a few steps across American territory to access the bridge.  Must I drive to the opposite end of town to report first to the American border station before returning through Canadian territory to the park?   I had read how intransigent the American inspectors can be and I did not want to do anything illegal just to experience this rather quaint border curiosity.  The friendly Canadian inspector saw my American plates as I pulled up and already knew my question before I asked it.  He told me the park was considered a “gray area” and I was free to visit and move around it.  He reminded me to touch the border pylon in the park as it was the northern point in the United States [sic].  He did, however, caution me not to stray farther beyond the park’s perimeter into American territory or I might well have an unwelcome visit from the American authorities who monitor the area with cameras and sensors.  Ironic that they would have to transit Canadian territory to get to me. [In general, I have found Canadians border agents friendlier and more accommodating, a subject of July 10, 2013 blogspot.  http://lookingtowardportugal.blogspot.com/2013/07/back-in-ussa-dispatches-from-maine.html]

I drove the very short distance down Rue de la Frontière to the Border Park.  To my left was a steep embankment leading up to the tracks of the Canadian National Railway linking Montréal and Halifax.  To my right the houses of Estcourt Station, Maine; almost every one bisected by the international boundary.  The roadway is bordered on the American side of the line with sensors and cameras to monitor any activity on the border.  At the end of the road there is parking area adjacent to the park, both of which are divided by the border.  A large border pylon stands in the middle of the park.  Just beyond the park is the Rivière François, the Route 289 highway and CNR rail bridges (both wholly within Canada), and the aforementioned international footbridge. 
The original bridge at this location was wide enough to accommodate horse carriages.  It was long known locally as “Tobacco Road” as Canadians would visit the now defunct small store in Estcourt Station which did a fast business selling American cigarettes which were two to three times cheaper than tobacco products in Canada. That bridge washed away many years ago and there was no plan to replace it as it permitted Canadians to enter the United States where there was no official port of entry.  It was finally rebuilt but the new bridge is limited to pedestrians only.  Canadians residing in Estcourt Station can now reach the commercial area of Pohénégamook even though they must cross a few feet of American territory in order to do so.  Those crossing from the Canadian side are greeted by a prominent sign warning visitors they must report to US customs at the far end of town.  There is no such sign requesting visitors to report to the Canadian border station.  Yet one more community and a host of problems not envisioned by Daniel Webster and Lord Ashburton in 1842.

UPDATED October 11, Dateline: Pittsburg, NH: The day after I visited Estcourt Station I returned to Beebe Plain - Derby Line, Vermont / Stanstead, Québec where I once again probed the international boundary, this time from the Canadian side of the line.  Driving south from Magog on Québec Route 247 along the eastern side of Lake Memphrémagog, which is also bisected by the border, I approached the border and turned left onto Canusa Street.  Since it lies wholly in the Canada and I was continuing on to the Rock Island side of the line a few miles east, I was not required to report to either border inspection station facing one another across the street.  I finally crossed back into the USA at Canaan, Vermont.

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