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United States/Canada Border

United States/Canada Border
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Most of the border crossings in Maine are on the state’s eastern edge, between New Brunswick and Aroostook County, a place where “potatoes, pine and people” are touted as the biggest resources. For years, the border between Maine and New Brunswick was in dispute, a tug of war between Great Britain and the United States. Maybe so, but it’s the French who dominate here. Guy Dubay has an Acadian museum by the roadside, just outside Madawaska, to prove the point: “We were here in the St. John Valley 60 years before internationalists decided our nationality.”

Dubay’s passion is the Acadian culture that permeates this region, both sides of the river, country of origin be damned. With his finger on a map, he patiently traces the migration of these pioneers who came to what is now Nova Scotia from France in the 1600s and then were deported by the British in 1755. Many settled in Maine. The line is there, but in their minds it’s all one place.

Dubay likes a good French-inspired meal, which he finds more to his taste across the river. But the traffic crossing the bridge is often slow now, and there’s the business of the documents he must present. “It’s too much bother,” he decides.

As the adage would go, this kind of bureaucratic red tape never stops those who want to engage in illegal activity. Last year, wheelchair-bound Michael Pelletier, a local man from Madawaska and St. David, was sentenced to life in prison for operating a multimillion-dollar drug-smuggling operation, paying swimmers to paddle thousands of pounds of marijuana across the St. John River from Canada into Maine. The 56-year-old Pelletier, who’d lost both legs in a farm accident as a young boy, had been operating the drug run since the early 1990s.

“Our information was that they had been doing it on a fairly regular basis,” explains Mark Albert (pronounced “al-bare“), Border Patrol Agent in Charge at the Van Buren station, a facility so new that on the day of my visit, workmen are just setting shrubs into the bare earth outside the entry. Albert was born in Quebec, grew up in Madawaska, and now lives in Fort Kent. We’re talking about the logistics of swimming that much marijuana across the relatively narrow river. It was reported that the swimmers were bringing 60 pounds on their backs at once. “Well, they had to have some kind of flotation device, I would think,” Albert says. “We unfortunately didn’t make those apprehensions.”

Albert’s territory covers 162 miles of the border, from Van Buren, Maine, to St-Pamphile, Quebec, on the western edge. “There’s been smuggling across this river ever since there’ve been two countries,” he tells me. “And they’ve smuggled everything you can think of–liquor, cows, you name it. I had an uncle once who used to store margarine in his barn and then shoot it over the border. It all depends on what’s in demand at what time. Sometimes they would just take it down to the riverbanks and leave it there, and the Canadians would come along on a snowmobile or in a boat and pick it up. This has gone on since time began.” But it’s not about these things so much anymore. “Terrorism is our first priority,” he says.

On the map, you can see all the roads in this region that once passed back and forth into Canada. Since 9/11, they’re all blockaded. Many miles south of Van Buren, I follow one road at random and, to my surprise, at the end is an old customs station, with its Depression-era architecture, a brick building with a covered porch where cars would drive in for questioning. The cement slab is still there in front of the door, but grass grows to its edge now, and wicker chairs have been set out under the porch. Beyond the house an iron gate blocks the road, which ends there, and large signs warn travelers to go no farther.

There’s no answer at the door when I knock, but the grass has been freshly cut. I hear a mower in the distance. Soon a man on a riding mower heads in my direction. He turns off the engine and greets me. He lives in the farmhouse next door to the old station. All this land, he gestures, swiveling in his tractor seat, pointing north, east, south, and west, and deeply into Canada, once belonged to his wife’s family. They were potato farmers, and all around us, potato fields are blooming with the soft white blossoms that in this part of the world spell money.

He doesn’t want me to use his name, but he tells me about trucks that come up this road sometimes, usually at night, and at the gate they meet other trucks, from Canada. Goods are exchanged. He watches from his window. The Border Patrol has asked for his cooperation in letting them know when things happen. Cameras and sensors bristle up the telephone pole and on the gate, he tells me: “A big animal can’t cross the line without them knowing it.” Helicopters hover at least once a day, and agents park out in his field. “Before 9/11, you came and went as you pleased,” he says. “No one cared, no one cared!”

He and his family used to drive down the now-blocked-off road to fix the roofs on the farmhouses only a mile away. Now they travel long distances just to reach the other part of their farm. Yes, there have been many changes. “During Prohibition, they looked the other way,” he notes, “even when this station was open.” He speaks to me from behind sunglasses; he occasionally takes his ball cap off, smooths his white hair, and settles the cap back on his head. He tells me stories about friends who got lost, wandered across the border, and were arrested, had their cars impounded.

Please Note: This article was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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7 Responses to United States/Canada Border

  1. JANE A REEL April 5, 2009 at 7:37 am #

    Thank you for an intriguing story. I had never really thought about the issues connected to our border with Canada. Some of the things Edie Clark encountered highlight the mystery . On a topic unrelated to the story, I can’t imagine living in such a remote area. This story gave me a lot to think about.

  2. Ronald Donett April 10, 2009 at 1:39 pm #

    This was a very thought provoking article. This is only my opinion,but to me the worst tragedy since 9/11 is how society in general has changed. I am now 60 years of age and it just seems to me that we used to live in a world where people in general loved and cared for one another. Now,it is more of a ‘me first’ attitude on the part of many people. You can say hello to someone and they will drop their head and act as if you are not even there. I have gone different places and someone will go ahead of you through a door and not hold it for you. Isn’t it sad? The article about the New England – Canada border only magnifies how the society that we live in has drastically changed. The one thing that I take comfort in knowing is that in time,goodness always triumphs over evil.

  3. chris hall April 15, 2009 at 11:14 am #

    the Border creates more problems than it solves. it needs to be done with.

  4. Sandra Basgall April 26, 2009 at 3:19 pm #

    EastportMaine was settled in 1780, incorporated in 1798. It was seized by the British in 1814 but in 1818 was returned to the United States through the Treaty of Ghent. Fort Sullivan at Eastport, built in 1810, had a meteoric life – only four years later, on July 11,1814 when a British fleet of a dozen warships of 200 guns with troop transports hove into sight, the fort?s six officers and 80 men surrendered upon demand.

  5. Jim Crosbie May 27, 2009 at 11:12 pm #

    Your article was both interesting and sad. I’m 61 and have travelled back and forth to Prince Edward Island and the Maritimes since I was born. My Mom was born on a farm in P.E.I. and I have loved visiting our “Home from Away”. It is such a sad commentary on our society in general that we now fear everything and everyone. After 9/11 our government overreacted as they usually do and brought fear and uncertainty instead of calm and thoughtful actions to deal with the tragedy of 9/11. Our age of innocence is gone forever.

  6. Andy Grossman August 14, 2009 at 11:37 am #

    I have been at the Derby Line/Rock Island border a half dozen times over the past 45 years; the freezing of the border in recent years is a great pity. Some years ago I researched border issues and was told that US Customs tries to buy up and demolish houses that straddle the border. One hopes that the Haskell Free Library will avoid that fate. Another anomaly I was told about was that — at least in the days before the “Carte soleil” [Quebec health insurance scheme ID card] — the clinic in Newport VT was the closest maternity facility and many Quebeckers from the area were born there, thus being dual nationals. Then there were those families in houses straddling the border who had to make Grandma sleep on one side or the other to get SSI (from Social Security) or Canadian Old Age Security, each of which has a residence qualification. Finally there was the matter of the Quebec sovereignty movement, and the “francisation” program that preceded it — linguistically separating Quebec from “the other”. My company, a (tiny) Quebec corporation, had to change its name into French even though it did no business in that province and its name became unpronounceable except to somebody who is bilingual and logical nonsense in either language. For what it’s worth I always get a bigger smile from the Canadian border police when I speak to them in French; the identity crisis will not go away.

  7. Naomi Bigelow December 21, 2009 at 11:44 am #

    Yo boy, am I homesick now. After seven years in the White Mountains and a lot of trips west and east again, small adventures when I took off alone and drove up into Quebec, through the Eastern Townships and across Ontario to Michigan and back to NH, I felt so comfortable with traveling alone in Canada. I’d memorized many local landmarks in both provinces and knew where the nice places were to stop for coffee or a meal. Now, because my passport has expired, my easy zip across from Port Huron/Sarnia and through the southern Ontario peninsula will have to be a much longer and less relaxing trip around the Great Lakes and across. I hate it. I have a great deal of affection for my old route; I feel at home when reaching Derby Line. What a bummer. It is just so sad that our cultures have to clash in ways that most of us would rather not see happen. I consider myself a citizen of the world and Canadians as just some more of the distant cousins (and I do have a lot of ancestors who immigrated to Canada from Europe rather than the US).

    And to Andy Grossman: Yep; I made the mistake of asking an Ontario Provincial police officer stationed in Coaticook (in English) if he spoke English, because I knew my French was too limited to ask for the information that I needed. Stiff as a ramrod he inquired in French if I spoke French. (I’d forgotten about the Francophone/Anglaisphone(sic) contention and it’s passionate division of the population.
    I replied with a pitiful attempt to convince him in his language that, “Ma Francais is tree petite and tres mal.” (Sorry, best I could do!) I was completely convinced and immediately inquired in flawless and professional English, “How may I help you?” Oh for the day when people are just people.

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