Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Stiffer rules infuriate Quebec border town

All Clarence Rolleston wanted was a snack at McDonald's after church. Instead, the 83-year-old Canadian pensioner and his wife were photographed, fingerprinted and threatened with a fine of up to $5,000 (U.S.).

Mr. Rolleston had made the mistake of driving across an unguarded border point into the United States from his lifelong home in Stanstead, Que. - one of a series of ill-fated cross-border jaunts by local residents that have ended badly and stirred anger along the normally peaceful international boundary.

The recent incidents led the mayor of Stanstead to do something that would have been unthinkable until now: He erected a makeshift barrier across Church Street, a border location whose absence of a gate has always stood as a symbol of friendship between Canada and the U.S.

Story continues below advertisement

"Do I leave a symbol in place and let people get detained?" Mayor Philippe Dutil asked. "At least this way no one gets into trouble."

Mr. Dutil says he was spurred by several stories that landed at his office of people who had crossed into the U.S. inadvertently or out of habit and ended up in custody. One of them was Mr. Rolleston, a retired carpenter. He drove across the Church Street boundary one Sunday and was heading to a nearby guarded U.S. checkpoint to report in, but was pounced upon by border agents before he got a chance. He was detained and escorted back to Canada about three hours later.

"I've crossed the border all my life, and it's getting worse all the time," Mr. Rolleston said Monday from Stanstead, about 150 kilometres southeast of Montreal. "I felt like I'd committed a big crime."

Now the mayor is contemplating a permanent barrier - perhaps a garden, he suggested - at the Church Street crossing. Until now, residents insisted the street remain unprotected because it abuts the celebrated Haskell Free Library, an institution that straddles the Canada-U.S. divide.

The neighbouring towns of Stanstead and Derby Line, Vt., have always seen themselves as a single community split by an international border; they've shared such services as firefighting and waterworks and are linked by friendships and intertwined families. But a spike in what locals describe as heavy-handed interventions by American border and law-enforcement authorities has produced growing disquiet.

On Saturday, a throng of mostly American demonstrators protested the treatment of a Derby Line pharmacist who was picked up and fined as he was walking home from an outing to buy pizza in Quebec. The pharmacist is fighting the case in court.

And Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who happened to be in Stanstead on Friday to announce a new hockey arena, voiced concern over the border incidents. Earlier this month, a Nova Scotia couple who had just dropped their son off at a hockey tournament in Quebec were detained and fingerprinted after accidentally crossing into the U.S. at Church Street.

Story continues below advertisement

"We share all the same security concerns as our American friends," Mr. Harper said. "I think we have to keep making the point to our American friends that it's essential that our borders be bridges between us and not barriers."

Still, the hardening of the border, begun in the intensification of security measures after 9/11, has soured the mood of many long-time residents on both sides of the boundary. Kim Prangley, a U.S.-born resident of Stanstead who had been the librarian at the Haskell library for 24 years, says she has begun to "detest" going into the U.S.

"Everyone's suspected of being a terrorist or of lying," she said. "We used to feel like we were part of the same community. Now it's like a member of your family that suddenly hates you, and you don't know why."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles as we switch to a new provider. We are behind schedule, but we are still working hard to bring you a new commenting system as soon as possible. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.