Marian Botsford Fraser is a writer, broadcaster and critic whose books include Requiem for My Brother and Walking the Line: Travels Along the Canadian/American Border. She is currently working on a book about Canada’s asylum seekers, past and present, which will be published by Biblioasis.
On the 45th parallel, international boundary markers are stitched into the fabric of daily life. The “world’s longest undefended border” marches through bedrooms and cemeteries, down the middle of streets and across dirt roads. Like the flow of bodies of water in this part of the continent, the flow of settlement and culture was historically south to north. Textile mills were built across rivers marking the boundary, to the mutual benefit of employers and workers on both sides. Stores were built right on the line in imaginative early exercises of free trade. Farm labour moved freely across the border and seeded mingled family trees. People came north to the dentist, travelled south to buy shoes.
The 45th parallel was designated in the 1760s as the official section of the border between what were then the provinces of New York and Quebec, both British colonies, and what today is Quebec and Vermont/New York. But it was improperly surveyed and hence known to boundary historians and surveyors as “the false 45th.” In fact, the boundary line rarely touches the 45th parallel and strays above it for more than a mile in spots, a digression favouring the territorial aspirations of the United States – a triumph repeated in almost every dispute as the 8,891-kilometre run of the boundary was formally surveyed.
There are more than 8,000 monuments on the border, each sitting precisely in the middle of what is known as “the vista,” a meticulously groomed swath, cut through forests, fields and swamps, six metres in Canada, six metres in the United States. The rule is that every boundary monument on land must be visible from the previous marker and the next. Where the boundary bisects buildings (known as line houses), there will be a monument on either side of the property.
In the late 1980s, I wrote a book – based on a CBC Radio Ideas series – Walking the Line: Travels Along the Canadian/American Border, published by Douglas & McIntyre in 1989. Back then, I travelled this section of the line, roughly 250 kilometres, from Canaan, Vt., to Cornwall, Ont., with ease, driving back and forth on myriad small roads. Even then, there were concerns about the occasional refugee sneaking across. But there were several places where I could simply walk across the line. And there were official ports of entry where, after a couple of days in the area, I was waved through like a local.
This June, I returned to the false 45th. At a volatile moment in our two countries’ shared history, I was curious to see how irritants of treaties and tariffs and the weight of policies surrounding immigration and surveillance are felt in those places where settlement preceded the laying down of the line – where the border is not only an abstract political construct but a tangible, intimate reality of the people who live alongside it.
The mechanics of the border have become increasingly electronic, and its functions have been primarily removed from the border itself – funnelled through airports and onto interstate/provincial highways. It seemed reasonable to expect that the physical boundary, and the history clustered around it, would have become attenuated, redundant, anachronistic. Marginalia.
But the presidency of Donald Trump has cracked open that expectation. The ease, the sense of casual neighbourliness, has almost completely disappeared. For many Canadians living close to the border, going south is just more trouble than it’s worth. And for many travellers, coming north has very recently become an entirely different story, one that takes place on foot, outside the heavily managed official ports of entry.
A ‘thinning’ border
The first person I spoke to in North Hatley, Que. (a 50-minute drive from the border), never goes into the States any more, hasn’t been for five years. He’s a fishing guide, on Lake Massawippi, which cuts North Hatley in two, and on Lake Memphremagog, one-third of which is in Vermont. But he no longer takes his boat south of the border or drives down, and he thinks he’d probably have to shave his beard (natty, not hipster) if he did decide to go. Last summer, he took Hillary Clinton fishing; she was staying at the Manoir Hovey, up in the hills; she’s friends with Eastern Townships writer Louise Penny.
North Hatley’s history is rich with American connections. Loyalists settled here after the American Revolution. The Massawippi Valley Railway drew Southerners north to build beautiful big summer houses up in the hills.
The town now has a distinctly double personality: There’s the lakeside Quebecois character – cheerful, working/middle class, roaring through on motorcycles on a sunny Sunday, fishing off the public dock and drinking beers at the Pilsen Pub, pulling boats in and out of the marina beside it. Then there’s the largely Anglo population in those big houses hidden in the hills. They drive BMW convertibles to Manoir Hovey for dinner and are the quiet guardians of the town; when a B&B owner on the main street got into a late-night noise spat with the Pilsen a few years ago, it was the Anglos who paid for the lawyers. He won; the Pilsen, rebranded as a restopub, is bustling but remarkably subdued on a late evening in early summer.
North Hatley is the repository of a fabulous piece of border mythology. In 1977, a Moroccan-Egyptian billionaire named Saad Gabr, member of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporter of radical Islamist agendas, bought up 35 properties in North Hatley and built himself a grand residence. He came to support a brilliant but unscrupulous Canadian ballistics entrepreneur named Gerald Bull, who developed weapons on his family property straddling the border in nearby Highwater. Mr. Gabr, so the story goes, financed the construction and testing of Mr. Bull’s massive supergun, right on the border, a weapon designed to launch missiles into space which later evolved into a model commissioned by Saddam Hussein to send missiles from Iraq to Israel. (If this story sounds vaguely familiar, it’s the basis of a recent Louise Penny plot.)
But this decade-long, terrorism-portending saga, like that of the Fenian Raids of the 1860s and the rich tradition of Prohibition smuggling tales everywhere along the 45th, is quaint history now. There is little sense of cross-border culture and community here, except for genteel Americans coming through as tourists. This prosperous corner of Quebec just doesn’t need Vermont, except as a customer for electricity.
Of far greater interest to travelling Canadians than the physical boundary is Canada’s pending legislation enabling extensive sharing of border-crossing data with the United States. Bill C-21, which passed third reading in June, will formalize a data-collection scheme for every single border crossing by land, water and air. The information will be held for 15 years and shared between both governments, and among their agencies, including Revenue Canada, the Internal Revenue Service and government pension and health-insurance plans. (Canadian officials will soon report to the United States on all Americans entering Canada; U.S. Homeland Security already collects this information on anyone entering the United States; you can see your own record of border crossings for the past five years on the Homeland Security website.)
This enhanced, intense collaboration is described by politicians and bureaucrats as the “thinning” of the international border. It is the product of exacerbated anxieties post-9/11, which resulted in a perimeter security pact between Canada and the United States in 2011. At all ports of entry, simple face-to-face data collection and seemingly quixotic interrogation are what we expect, but these interactions are buttressed by both countries’ no-fly lists, and by Tuscan – short for Tipoff U.S./Canada – a U.S.-generated database of almost 700,000 names of known or suspected terrorists, now available to all border agents in both countries.
“Thinning” feels more like tightening, especially to Canadians living and working along the border. Suddenly, informal practices and historical relationships are subject to uncomfortable scrutiny. One entrepreneur told me he had recently pulled his informal, modest business connections completely from a town on the Vermont side because, if the IRS came calling, he would go bankrupt.
‘Welcome to United States’
Not much has changed in the Northeast Kingdom in the past 30 years. It is still a marginalized corner of the United States, where, around a couple of fast-moving streams, Vermont and New Hampshire butt up against Quebec. A pastoral image on the “Welcome to Canaan, Vermont, EST 1782” road sign has faded to blankness. The fabled Ethan Allen furniture factory has been shuttered for almost a decade. Wayne’s Lanes bowling alley and Kneading Knots massage service are not open for my business on this cold, rainy Monday morning. I looked in vain for a gas station where I might buy a road map.
The only glimmer of prosperity here is the new U.S. Customs and Border Protection regional headquarters. A sprawling, gated compound on the main street, it is studded with electronic gadgetry and towers, by which all the surveillance installations along this section of the border are monitored. CBP claims 100 air miles south of the boundary as its hunting grounds. After 9/11, the number of CBP agents on the border with Canada climbed from 600 to 2,000. At the same time, according to locals on the Canadian side, a distinctly U.S./Mexican-border mindset was imported to these parts, an aggressiveness, an indifference to cultural history, meaning knowledge about any aspect of Québécois life.
Here, there’s little road traffic, except for the transport and logging trucks that barrel by. And apparently, moose: There are frequent moose warnings on the gloomy, densely wooded east-west Highway 114. The Kiwanis Club’s annual guide to events is called Mooseology. The local newspaper reports a collision with a moose.
It also reports the results of a recent three-day Interstate 93 checkpoint operation by the Border Patrol, which netted 17 illegal subjects (largely from Latin America, but also from Ukraine, Indonesia and Montenegro), plus 67.1 grams of marijuana, 3.51 grams of hashish and 2,000 milligrams of THC vape oil. A pink-haired young man in the convenience store sporting a “Welcome to United States” sign also had no road maps and assured me that I’d find “nothing,” either, in Norton, the next town.
This state is desperate for population. Vermont Public Radio was reporting extensively in June on a new scheme approved by the state legislature: US$10,000 grants for 100 out-of-state tech workers willing to move to Vermont and work from home. Applicants must currently be employed by non-Vermont companies and must commit to becoming permanent residents of Vermont within a year of relocating. (Commentators suggest that the money might better be spent on local women who’ve given up careers to have children, and note that there are significant areas of the state with patchy, at best, broadband and cable connections.)
The pink-haired young man was right about Norton: There are many abandoned farm buildings and houses collapsing inward – gaping roofs, broken windows and overgrown yards displaying faded For Sale signs. A roadside diner is still advertising last November’s Northeast Kingdom Snow Blasters Hunters Supper. I saw two people and a dog walking this road, and when I turned back to take a picture of the only American flag/Trump banner along the highway, they stopped and glared at me.
The JJ Gas Bar at Norton, marooned on a turnaround, is, as its sign declares, FERMEE.
“Please remain at all times on the sidewalk and return to Canadian soil immediately following your visit.”
One of very few remaining scraps of interjurisdictional civility on the 45th parallel takes the form of a trip to the library. The rule is thus: To go to the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, famously and deliberately straddling the border with Derby Line, Vt., you walk up Church Street in Stanstead, Que., and cross the border. You must stay on the sidewalk. You walk past the boundary marker and a row of large planters blocking the street and delineating the boundary; the planters, in early June, are unkempt and flowerless. A row of boulders completes the barrier. If, at any time, you step or fall off the sidewalk into the United States, you must report to U.S. Customs and Border Protection down at the corner.
The library and little opera house upstairs are charming – warm, polished woods, stained-glass windows, the boundary casually but precisely marked on the floor with black tape (for insurance purposes). The staff are young and helpful, the patrons numerous; it’s a contented little space. (A Montreal man tried to smuggle handguns into Canada through the library a few years ago, but he was caught.)
This insouciance is singular; every other informal crossing in this tangle of villages has been blocked off or gated, and the rural crossings have been closed. There are cameras everywhere. Drive west from Stanstead toward Beebe, and the boundary vista suddenly emerges from deep woods onto the edge of a lovely meadow and then runs directly down the middle of Canusa Road. A boundary marker has recently been mounted on a large wooden platform beside the meadow, because cyclists coming along the cycling path from Stanstead were detouring into the meadow for a rest, with no idea they had crossed the line.
Canusa Road has the charm and energy of a stripped vein. A row of old houses faces the street on the south side, a few bearing American flags. A similar row lines up on the Canadian side. Houses appear vacant, some are for sale, and there’s not a single person on the street. The only sign of life is a large RCMP vehicle ready to pounce if anyone were to walk across the road. The dour granite mansion at the end of the street (now five rather rundown-looking apartments) is the most famous line house of them all. The fresh-faced librarian back at the Haskell Library wistfully recalled being allowed to celebrate Halloween by trick-or-treating on both sides of the street when she was a child; such frivolity is no longer permitted.
The United States and Canada have conspired to make the remaining small border crossings ugly, difficult and bureaucratic. Large chunks of concrete, aggressive signs and fluorescent orange barricades block the old roads, enforcing detours. Old-fashioned border posts are being replaced with fortified glass-and-steel high-tech bunkers – some of them shared by the two countries, to make things really efficient. Travellers are channelled through barriers like prison sally ports to speak to officials. Tall chain-link gating systems on the new bunkers work like cages, electronically letting you in, letting you out; these unsettling structures are carbuncles plunked down on pretty little country roads wending through the landscape.
But once through the official ports of entry, there are many places where one could, if one were so inclined, cross the border inadvertently or deliberately. On either side of the vista, the forests are dense and impenetrable, but there are long stretches on the Vermont/New York side where a road runs right alongside the border, between two fields. The boundary monuments are perched on the edges of ditches. It would be easy to hop across on foot or on an ATV, or skis or a snowmobile in winter.
Up on East Richford Slide Road (a desolate stretch of ramshackle houses where the detritus of failure is piled high in weedy yards) there’s a cemetery split by the boundary, the road running right up into Canada and back out again without any signage at all, until suddenly you see a stubby monument marked “CANADA” standing quietly by the road. (The International Boundary Commission dallied with the idea of putting its own monument in the cemetery, but has not done so.) As in all cemeteries in this region, the gravestones are magnificent specimens of the marble and granite mined on both sides of the line.
The deterrent to straying off course: surveillance. In some locations, it’s obvious; you can see cameras on posts or in the trees. Or you can just ask the locals – they know exactly where they are. There are said to be sensors (in the roads? in the fields?). No one knows for sure. There’s often an American helicopter patrolling overhead, and fleets of CBP and RCMP vehicles cruise their respective small roads. But mostly, the surveillance is invisible.
I often wondered who was taking pictures of me taking pictures.
Border guards like a simple narrative.
To get gas/have supper.
Where are you staying?
In that B&B right over there.
Do you know anybody?
Taking down/bringing back anything?
On this journey, I presented my passport to 20 border officials. Most were polite, if reserved and humourless; two (one American, one Canadian; they looked like brothers) were downright jolly and relaxed: “Does this mean you’re writing a new book?” A nerdy young Canadian guard ordered me to pull over and wait; he was googling me. An American allowed me to approach the boundary to take a picture of a derelict Duty Free trailer, and then she made me delete (because she was monitoring me) photos of a couple of identical, barely standing ghost houses on either side of the CBP building.
One truculent CBP agent had me turn off my engine.
Why are you going back to Newport? You just came from there. … Well, why do you keep going back up to Canada? Why don’t you just stay down here? What’s the point? … You’ve come across the border five times in the past 48 hours … Do you know anybody down here?
No, I don’t.
Do you call this research, is this research?
Well (flicking my passport at me), have fun just driving around.
My heart was banging against my ribs, and I called him Sir.
I drove rapidly past a sign on a convenience store on Main Street, Richford: Bordertown Redemption.
The next day, I was surreptitiously followed by an unmarked CBP SUV as I drove down roads close to the border, looking for a red-roofed brick farmhouse where, in 1987, I’d interviewed an old farmer about the Fenian Raids. I found the house. Thirty years ago, I’d walked across here with the farmer and his dog up to a monument to the Battle of Eccles Hill on the Canadian side. Today, there was no one home. As I was leaving the yard, the CBP vehicle intercepted me; a young bearded officer admitted he was following me, asked a few amiable questions, said, “Have a nice day,” and drove off.
Several long-time residents of Stanstead told me they never cross the border any more, not even for gas; two of them told stories of unprovoked harassment by border officials, followed by prolonged grilling and searching of their vehicles. One was a former police officer, and the other retired from the Canadian Armed Forces.
There are still Canadians who regularly go to Newport for gas (it’s 30-per-cent cheaper), and there are Americans who “just love that bakery up in Canada.” But the sense of cross-border community has vanished. The few remaining line houses are only accessible from one side, and as they deteriorate, they are pulled down. History is condensed onto plaques.
On July 4, the Stanstead Journal, a weekly newspaper in existence for 173 years, issued a blistering editorial excoriating President Donald Trump and calling Independence Day a “Sad Day for America.”
In 1989, at the end of the 45th-parallel chapter in Walking the Line, I wrote, “History has passed through many of these border communities; it will not be back this way again.”
That observation holds true for the most part, as the border between Canada and the United States becomes increasingly abstract, technological, rooted in enormous databases and insidious surveillance. These border communities have been drained of their economic clout. The Chamber of Commerce in Plattsburg, N.Y., may describe the town as “Montreal’s American suburb” and make the argument that ours is an integrated economy, not a mere trading relationship. Mr. Trump is oblivious to fine distinctions and local interests, preferring to execute bear-like swipes at trade agreements.
But, and again because of Mr. Trump, actual frontiers suddenly matter. The conventions and protocols governing immigration and refugees are being not just questioned but ripped to shreds. We’re seeing migration not as statistics and flow charts, but as images of women and men and children, trying to cross borders, desperate to get out, desperate to get in.
A quiet rural road on the 45th parallel has become totemic of this battle over the international rights of asylum seekers.
The end of a country road
The New York piece of Roxham Road runs for less than half a mile through farmland north of the village of Perry Mills. There is an enormous barn at its southern end and several farms beside the road; one has a corral full of restive horses; a couple of grounded, rundown trailers are guarded by pickup trucks and dogs.
This short stretch of tarmac, which just stops at the international boundary, is really the tail end of Roxham Road, Que., which runs past well-established farms with barns and sheep, and geraniums in pots on verandahs. In the sixties and early seventies, the little boy who lived on a farm on the Canadian side would walk down the road to play with his friend on the American side. There was, back then, a small customs hut on the Canadian side. But after the 1972 Munich Olympics, in anticipation of terrorism at the 1976 Games in Montreal, most of the small roads crossing the border were closed, including Roxham Road.
The customs hut is now a private dwelling. Considerable effort has gone into making Roxham Road impassable for vehicles – it looks to have been bermed. But there is no fence, just a few portable barricades and a “ROAD CLOSED” sign. Right beside the sign you can barely see a surprisingly narrow path around some boulders and logs and across a ditch.
In the first six months of 2018, the RCMP processed more than 10,000 asylum seekers entering Quebec, mostly on this rutted track beside Boundary Monument 660 on Roxham Road.
To do so, the RCMP rents space from the Canadian landowner whose property sits right on the border. This operation began in the summer of 2017 as a makeshift work site, a clearing with a couple of trailers and white tents. By the time I was here in June, a “temporary permanent” building had been constructed, on concrete blocks, with an attendant degree of external communications infrastructure and officiousness.
Cameras are mounted on tall poles, facing south, on guard for signs of intrusion. There are remarkably polite, new-looking signs in English and French: “Claiming asylum is not a free ticket into Canada.” “There are specific requirements to be considered a refugee – if you do not meet them, you will be asked to leave or be removed to your country of origin.”
This jumble of conflicting iconography is startling to encounter at the end of a country road. What’s noticeable on the American side is the nothingness: silence, except for the song of redwing blackbirds; nothing on the road, not even a garbage can on this day, just a sandy turnaround for minibuses and taxis. The American border patrol, an officious, trolling presence on some of these back roads, rarely comes here, according to benevolent American and Canadian citizens who do come here, almost every day, to offer practical (mittens and coats in winter; lemon water in summer) and emotional support to asylum seekers.
No one crossed the day I was here. I came twice to the American side, and went once down Roxham Road to the RCMP encampment on the Canadian side, where I was told in no uncertain terms to turn around and go away, and where even my most banal questions were met with impassive silence.
Coming into Canada outside an official port of entry is the only way refugee claimants can enter from the United States, because of the Safe Third Country Agreement that came into effect in 2004. Occasional Haitians have found their way here since then, but in early 2017, Roxham Road became the scene of a joyless pilgrimage for thousands fleeing from Venezuela, Colombia, Nigeria, Guinea and Sri Lanka.
They come to this ditch in taxis and minibuses from the bus stop in Plattsburg. Some have just landed in the United States; others have overstayed U.S. visas or become nervous about their chances of being allowed to stay there. They haul suitcases, strollers and walkers and carry knapsacks and small children right up to the edge of the road, and then stop.
An RCMP officer stands on the Canadian side of the ditch and recites a script in English and/or French, which few understand or listen to; they will not be deterred from crossing the line. Once they do, they are arrested, interviewed briefly and sent to either Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada or Canadian Border Service Agency centres – the beginning of a long process of having their claim assessed.
If people pass the initial screening, they have not entered Canada illegally, a distinction never made by increasingly vociferous opponents to this entirely legal process of seeking asylum and applying for refugee status.
So the 45th parallel is once again a battlefield. It’s a conflict between ideologies – Mr. Trump’s Make America White Again versus Justin Trudeau’s Welcome to Canada, Eh! Mr. Trump’s rhetoric has migrated northward; white-nationalist sympathizer Faith Goldy does Periscope stand-ups on the American end of Roxham Road, where she uses her Canadian identity to pry information from asylum seekers as they get off buses, and then proclaims her revelations in a live video feed: Canada’s southern border is being invaded by illegal migrants! Self-defined “ultranationalist” groups such as Storm Alliance have held several rallies close to Roxham Road in the last year.
Simultaneously, citizen refugee-support groups have formed on both sides of the border – in Canada, Bridges Not Borders (based in towns near Roxham Road) and the American group, Plattsburg Cares – people who’d never met until now, witnessing and co-ordinating support for those who travel down Roxham Road.
On July 1, when members of Bridges Not Borders went, as they do every Sunday, to the American side of Roxham Road to offer lemon water and kind words on a hot day, there was not a single person seeking asylum. At the time, Canadian officials claimed the decrease as a triumph of new preventative messaging in such countries as Nigeria and Haiti. Local observers say that wide-ranging patrols by ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) may have made asylum seekers afraid to take a bus – and especially afraid to risk losing their children. (While the numbers had been decreasing in May and June, figures released earlier this week show a jump of 23 per cent in the number of claimants from June to July, with most of the 1,636 asylum claimants making the crossing in this part of Quebec.)
Travelling through here 30 years ago, I heard the story of a Haitian man who’d recently been apprehended for sneaking across the line. I heard this story over and over again, on both sides of the line; it was always the same man. Back then, he was trying to get into the United States.
Even then, the international boundary wasn’t “undefended”; that was a mutually pleasing canard. There are no soldiers, there is no wall. But if anything, the physical border has become more relevant, certainly to the thousands who’ve walked across the false 45th, single-file, out of one country to be arrested in another.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the 45th parallel was designated in the 1760s as the official section of the border between what was then Lower Canada and New York State and is now Quebec and Vermont/New York. In fact, New York was at the time known as the Province of New York and Quebec as the Province of Quebec, and both were British colonies.