Photo courtesy Alaska Dispatch News

The Canadian border with the United States is the longest un-militarized border in the world, a statistic symbolic of the peaceful relationship the two countries have held for hundreds of years; however, it does not take into account recent efforts or attitudes towards strengthening security along this 8,890 kilometre long international border.

A Bloomberg poll released in September showed that 41 per cent of respondents, Americans over the age of 18, agreed with the following statement: “If a wall is good for the Mexico border, it is good for the Canada border as well.”   The concept of a physical brick-and-mortar structure separating the two counties was originally brought to the public’s attention by former U.S. presidential candidate and Wisconsin Governor, Scott Walker, who called this “a legitimate issue for us to look at” in terms of law enforcement. In response, Jason Kenney, then Canada’s minister for National Defence and Multiculturalism dismissed Walker’s statement, citing extensive security conditions already in place.

“If you look at how the border works today, with helicopters going up and down, and security boats patrolling on a constant daily basis, it’s clear that border is heavily secured,” Kenney said at the time.

The rhetoric surrounding a Canadian-American border wall earlier this year was just that: Rhetoric. This serves as a reminder that even among countries coexisting so peacefully, security has increased on a large scale in recent years. Prior to the attacks on September 11, about half of the border crossings were left unguarded at night. In the years since 2001, the number of American security personnel along the border has increased from 340 to 2,220 as of 2014. Air travel to and from Canada and the United States began requiring passport identification in 2007, and via land, in 2009.  In the decade following 9/11, the United States has spent $3 billion per year securing its northern borders.  

To understand the phenomenon of evolving security is to examine how the new laws manifest themselves on the ground.  In two adjacent communities split through the middle by a fairly open border: Stanstead, QC, Canada, and Derby Line, VT, U.S.A, security has come to play a role in the everyday lives of residents, apparent even to the casual visitor.

Communities divided


he context of today’s heightened security and the laws thereof manifest themselves in unique ways in the border towns of Stanstead and Derby Line. With the post-2009 advent of passport requirement to travel between Canada and the United States, three former crossings—Church Street, Lee Street, and Ball Street—were gated off, restricting legal border entry to only two locations.  All vehicular border crossing traffic is now diverted to either the Canusa Avenue border crossing, which separates Beebe Plain, VT from the Beebe Plain area of Stanstead, Quebec, or across town at the Derby Line, VT and Rock Island area of Stanstead border crossing on Dufferin Street.

The introduction of the gate on Church Street in 2011 caused concern among residents of the town when erected, as the absence of a barrier held a symbol of trust in the community.  Former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper visited Stanstead that same year and noted the importance of balancing the new state of security in keeping with friendship between Canada and the United States.

“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,” Harper said on the matter, while visiting Stanstead to announce the construction of a hockey arena that year.

Canadian-U.S. border on Church Street facing Canada/Credit: Aislinn Kalob

Today, Church Street is barricaded by a row of flower pots.

Aside from the blocked streets between Stanstead and Derby Line, the international border cuts through the two towns for many kilometres and is not divided by a physical barrier.  Technically, people could cross the border by foot at any number of locations.  But by law, anyone crossing the border, whether by car or on foot, must present themselves to the nearest border station or risk a penalty: A fine ranging from $200 to $3,000, or imprisonment.

Caption: Canada border services sign informs visitors to report to Dufferin Street border crossing/Credit: Aislinn Kalob

A border official on the U.S. side of the Dufferin Street border crossing—who requested anonymity because he was unauthorized to speak on the matter—believed there was an overall positive response among the community towards the strengthening of border crossing security.

“Some of the people [...] may view this negatively [...] because you have some wait time,” the border official said. “Most of the people [have] accepted it [...they] don't have much of an opinion […] not too many people are outright hostile [….] Since September 11, people know [...] things have changed, and they're accepting this.”

Despite the potential for long wait times, this border official cited that crossing into the other country remains a part of people’s daily lives in both Stanstead and Derby Line.

“It’s the same people crossing all day,” he said. “Some of them cross five or six times a day, because they have family on this side, the kids are babysat in Canada; they work over there in the U.S., but they actually live in Canada, [or] their ex-girlfriend lives in the U.S.”

Robert Sheldon is general manager of Granite Central, a museum devoted to the history of granite in Stanstead.  It stands less than 500 metres from the Dufferin Street border crossing, within view.  During the summer holidays, he notices traffic backed up for three to four kilometres at the Dufferin Street crossing, due to its location on Highway 143. The crossing along Canusa Avenue has a much lighter flow of traffic due to its location in a residential area.

“I'll get into my truck,” Sheldon said. “I’ll drive up to the border and tell people, [...] ‘Why don't you just come down to this museum, and after you visit the museum, I'll show you another crossing, and you'll pass within minutes [….] Customs officers in Beebe get upset with me sometimes, saying 'you're sending so much traffic down here.'"

Caption: Sign welcomes visitors to the famous Canusa Street (CAN-USA), directly splitting Stanstead and Derby Line/Credit: Aislinn Kalob

Small-town life, the way it was before


rior to the passport requirement for crossing the border, traffic to and from the two countries was more fluid.  In the ’80s, when the Canadian dollar was particularly strong in relation to the U.S. dollar, Canadians would often participate in cross-border shopping, purchasing food, cigarettes, alcohol, and gasoline in Vermont and New Hampshire with ease.  Former residents recall the relaxed experience living a slightly more unique version of small-town life fondly.

Peter Scowen, current editorial writer for the Globe and Mail, bought the local newspaper, the Stanstead Journal, with a co-worker and friend in 1987 when its existence was at risk due to financial trouble. Together, the two of them ran the entire operation until 1991, and the Journal is today in its 171st year of publication, documenting facets of small-town life.  

“From [1987] to [1991], you'll see my name or initials on almost every story, I wrote everything,” Scowen said. “I wrote editorials, I did all the layout, I did the photography, it was a tiny one-person operation. My partner took care of the business side, he sold the ads, did all the accounting and booking. He was grandiosely called publisher, and I was grandiosely called editor.”

Caption: Rock Island, one of the former "trois villages" of Stanstead/Credit: Aislinn Kalob

When Scowen owned the paper prior to 1995, what is now Stanstead was three different villages: Bebee, Stanstead, and Rock Island, where the /Stanstead Journal/ was based.  The Stanstead Journal covered the news of these villages, the greater Stanstead County, and news on the opposite side of the border.

“Border stories weren't, in my memory, a big issue,” Scowen said. “We didn't write a lot about the border; we wrote about both sides of the town. If there was a big crash in Derby Line, an accident […] we would cover it, because it was local news. People probably knew the person, or they would have heard about it.”

In some cases, the differences between either side of the border worked to his benefit.

“One night, we were trying to put the paper out, and we had a blackout in Rock Island,” said Scowen. “The lights were on in Derby Line, and my partner's sister worked there, had an office [….] So we packed our computers into a car, we went down to the border, and we told them what happened.  We set up an office used their power to get the paper out.  I don't think you could ever do that today. I don't think you could come to the border with a bunch of computers to run a business with for 24 hours.  It would be so complicated and impossible.”

Caption: Border crossing station on Canusa Street, separating Beebe, Stanstead from Beebe Plain, Vermont/Credit: Aislinn Kalob

Today’s experience


nn Kasowski is the owner of Boutique Veranda, a collectibles shop located on Principal Road in Stanstead, or what used to be Beebe.  Kasowski moved to Beebe in 1984, and was in the unique situation of living only a number of houses away from the Canada - U.S. border, a less complex arrangement at that time compared to today.

"When I first moved here […] I'd take the dog and walk to the post office," Kasowski said. "I'd wave at the Canadian guy, wave at the American guy, go get my mail [...] and go home. That was it.  They used to say Beebe here was the friendliest border [….] You've seen what you have to go through now. And not only do I have to have [my passport], I have to have papers for the dog to go get the mail, which is seven houses away in the States."

Although the border plays a distinct role in her everyday life, Kasowski has few complaints.

"Most of the border guards know me," Kasowski said. "They're very friendly, usually. The odd time, you get somebody who hasn't served here from the big border, and they’re much rougher, because they're not used to a small town and who the locals are."

Sheldon takes a different stance on the border. The increased difficulty the border guards give tourists negatively affects his and other surrounding businesses.  He is concerned that the policy of questioning visitors has become overly harsh.

"A lot of Americans don't dare come this way, because coming this way [into Canada] is easy, but going back, you're a terrorist,” Sheldon said. “In the past, you always were innocent until proven guilty. Now you're guilty until you're proven innocent.  It's more difficult for the Americans to go back, so there's not a lot of tourists coming this way [….]  It makes it difficult for [businesses].”

His personal estimation is that only 25 per cent of Stanstead’s population of around 3,500 residents cross into the United States, despite the appeal of cheaper goods and services just across the border. He claims that for some, it is fear of the border crossing that deters them.

"A lot of [people] have a file,” he said.  “They're on welfare, they've gotten into problems, they've got a DWI, they went to jail—so they're just scared of the border.”

Sheldon crosses the border into Derby Line, Vermont three or four times per day to pick up his mail, get groceries, or purchase gas.  He uses a NEXUS card rather than his passport, which allows for speedier crossing, although he finds it an unsettling measure of security.

“The computer knows more about me than I know about myself,” Sheldon said.  “That's what gets me [....] And [the border guard’s] attitude sometimes, instead of smiling, saying ‘Welcome, what's your name, where are you going,’ it's [the] crazy things that they ask. ‘What are you going over here for?’ I always say, ‘to stimulate your economy!’

Caption: Border crossing station on Canusa Street, separating Beebe, Stanstead from Beebe Plain, Vermont/Credit: Aislinn Kalob

Stanstead and Derby Line: United and Divided


he Haskell Free Library and Opera House, a building which purposefully straddles the border, was intended by its founders in 1901 to foster community and international harmony.

This noted attraction draws many tourists, but remains an important local institution, bringing performing arts and a space for learning to the communities of Stanstead and Derby Line. Despite the novelty of a building constructed on an international border, the line painted across the floor is more than just a symbol.  Within the building, visitors can cross back and forth without reporting to the border station.  While watching the opera you can be seated in one country while the actors are performing in the other.  

The idea for this structure was conceived of by Martha Stewart Haskell, who was born in a granite house on Canusa Avenue, another international structure in Stanstead, just down the street from Kasowski’s residence.  

“The granite house was the store and post office for both countries until 1916,” said Kasowski, who also used to serve as archivist at the Stanstead Historical Society. “[Haskell’s] father was the postmaster for both countries. In memory of her husband, she built Haskell library, also cut by the border.”

Sheldon takes issue with the tighter border security and its visible effect on unity between the two towns, noting that it had affected relations significantly.

“We try to do things together, or in the past, we did,” he said. “We used to have parades, for the first of July or the fourth, whereby the floats would come across and we'd join into each other. Now they have what they call their 'town day,' around the fourth, and we have our […] festival, which is separate.  You'd have very few Americans coming.”

Despite it all, even prior to the recent heightened security, Derby Line and Stanstead are in two different countries. Logistically, there always has been, and always will be, very real elements of separation.  

“While people came and went very easily and they had friends and family on both sides, and they went across just for lunch or to buy their milk and their gas, they were still two very different countries,” said Scowen.  “Different economies, different wages, it was remarkable, actually, the differences you see.”

Whether it’s two different insurance companies covering the two respective international halves of the Haskell Library and Opera House, cheaper gas prices on the U.S. side of the border drawing Canadian visitors, or Scowen’s power outage anecdote reflecting the difference even of electricity suppliers.

“The power grid was different, the water supply was different, the economy was different, how much [money] you make was different, prices were completely different,” Scowen said. “It's funny how it's such an arbitrary line that has deep significance in the way people live.”

Over 400,000 people cross the border between Canada and the United States per day for business and leisure, but in two towns that are split down the middle by a seemingly arbitrary line drawn on the pavement, the border is a stark reality.  In a post-9/11 world, it’s more a reality than ever, bringing vast changes to all 8,890 kilometres of the Canadian and American border.  Derby Line and Stanstead are in the unique situation of needing to balance practical security measures, while working to maintain their former sense of unity.  They remain two towns that share emergency services, a sewer system, and snowplowing duties in winter, home to people who had been accustomed to easily crossing an international border for a slice of pizza. The experiences of individuals, affected on a daily basis by each change in border security laws, only serve to humanize a calculated, deliberate, and expensive matter of foreign policy.