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U.S. customs officials have been searching packages bound for a community that, for most of the year, can only be reached from Maine – and locals aren’t happy

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Darlene Howlett stands in front of an information centre at Mulholland Point Lighthouse on New Brunswick's Campobello Island. At left is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Bridge connecting the island to Maine, which, for most of the year, is the islanders' only way in or out. 'We’re Canadians and we’re paying taxes here just like everybody else. But I feel like we’re being tormented for being so isolated,' Ms. Howlett says.Photography by Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

It’s always been hard to keep secrets on tiny Campobello, an island cut off from the rest of Canada by the frigid Bay of Fundy tides. But for U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, there appears to be a new interest in peering into the private lives of its residents – through their mail.

The U.S. agency’s apparent concern over legalized cannabis has prompted an increased effort to search and seize mail bound for the New Brunswick island, and it’s got islanders saying it’s finally time they had a year-round transportation link to their own country.

“There isn’t anybody here who hasn’t had their mail opened,” said Kathleen Case, the postmistress for the island’s post office in Welshpool. “It’s not just cannabis. It’s every package, whether it’s for the nursing home or the school or the library. There’s no rhyme or reason to it.”

For most of the year, there’s only one way on or off Campobello Island, and that’s across the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Bridge that connects to Maine. A private ferry through Canadian waters only runs in the summer months, which means domestic mail is driven about an hour through the United States by a bonded mail truck to reach the island with a population of fewer than 900.

The border has long been a fact of life here, and many people commute off-island daily to jobs or to get groceries in a place where they’re on a first-name basis with U.S. border guards. But they say searching their mail, and opening things like prescriptions, medical records and mail-in ballots, is getting too personal. “That bothers me. That’s one of our lifelines, our mail. There’s some personal stuff in there,” said Curtis Malloch, a lobster fisherman and former provincial MLA for the island. “We’ve got a bit of a crisis going on here."

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A piece of green customs-inspection tape lies on the ground.

In recent weeks, dozens of packages have arrived at the local Canada Post office marked with green tape indicating they’ve been opened by border officers. Islanders say they’ve had orders of medicinal marijuana and CBD oil seized, while shipments of fresh food or other goods are rifled through and delayed, or returned undelivered. The seizures have prompted the province’s Cannabis NB agency to suspend marijuana deliveries to the island until a solution can be found.

While Canada Post acknowledged the U.S. agency’s right to stop and search any truck, it said it is trying to resolve the issue. For now, driving the mail by truck through the United States remains the most reliable year-round option, the postal service said.

Residents complain the mail searches go far beyond cannabis deliveries. American agents have intercepted everything from interlibrary book transfers to passports to medication to parcels bound for the Roosevelt Campobello International Park, the former summer home of America’s 32nd president.

“Those expectations of privacy that the rest of Canada has don’t exist on Campobello,” said Justin Tinker, an engineer who sits on the island’s ferry committee. “But it’s not for Canadians to decide how the U.S. applies its rule of law. It’s up to Canada to ensure the rights and freedoms of Canadians on Campobello are preserved.”

Mr. Tinker is among islanders calling for a year-round ferry connecting Campobello to the rest of New Brunswick, providing a reliable domestic route for the mail. Without it, the island’s economy and population have declined because of an international border that deters commerce and residents, he says. Although more than 85 per cent of islanders say they’re in favour of improved ferry service, there’s little political will to pay for it, according to Mr. Tinker. “The single biggest problem on the island right now is that so much is contingent on the goodwill of the United States,” he said. “The lifestyle has been compromised to the point a lot of people don’t see it as worth it any more.”

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Tourists walk on the grounds of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's former summer home on Campobello, now a museum.

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According to the park's website, the building has been preserved as a symbol of the close friendship between Canada and the United States.

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Steve Hatch lives on Campobello. He's a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen who's complained to Canada Post about the islanders' problems with the mail.

Campobello resident Steve Hatch, a dual American-Canadian citizen who can hear the dogs barking across the water in Eastport, Me., on calm days, has filed a formal complaint with Canada Post about the mail issue. He, like many others, thinks the postal service needs to find a different route as soon as possible.

He remembers smuggling oranges onto the island as a boy in the backseat of his mother’s car. It was a joke back then, sneaking contraband past authorities, but no one is laughing any more about how much more restrictive the U.S border has become.

“Everything is much more complicated here now,” Mr. Hatch said. “Why are they doing this? Who knows. But we’re not going to talk them out of it.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. customs agency declined to discuss the recent interest in Campobello’s mail, saying only that it has the authority to search anything passing through its borders.

“CBP officers possess broad search authority to ensure the safety and admissibility of all goods entering the United States. This includes the ability to inspect and search all persons, baggage and merchandise arriving in, or transiting through, the United States," Michael McCarthy said in an e-mail.

In some cases, letters have been opened, which has prompted concerns that social insurance numbers, credit card numbers and medical information could be compromised. Last May, the province hired a boat to carry islanders’ ballots from a municipal by-election, to avoid possible confiscation at the border.

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'We’re a forgotten island,' says Ms. Howlett, who runs a marine mammal interpretation centre.

Islanders say they still love to live in a place where people rarely lock their doors. And they’re willing to live with challenges that include driving more than two hours to reach a hospital in Saint John, or knowing if they’re convicted of a crime, they won’t be allowed to enter the United States. But they feel their precarious situation isn’t appreciated by politicians on the mainland.

"We’re a forgotten island,” said Darlene Howlett, who runs a marine mammal interpretation centre. “We’re Canadians and we’re paying taxes here just like everybody else. But I feel like we’re being tormented for being so isolated.”

The complaints about opened mail, meanwhile, are becoming a daily occurrence as more and more packages are held up at the border. Brett Newman, the community’s mayor, understands people’s frustration. Life on Campobello has always been closely tied to whims of the U.S., but lately it’s getting to be a bit too much.

“The U.S. is within their right to search any vehicle entering the country and the Canadian government has not only continued to allow this, there seems to be no talk or any means of a safer alternative in the future,” he said. “Campobello residents are Canadians and having our personal mail inspected for no reason by another country is an attack on our very rights.”

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