BARRIERS COME DOWN IN THE BORDERLANDS
PORTRAIT OF TWO NATIONS
In the village of Estcourt, on the border between Maine and eastern Quebec, Roland Béchard, a 66-year-old former building superintendent, sits in the kitchen of the family homestead watching television. The refrigerator humming away behind him is in the United States, the TV set in Canada. “It is not really something you think about,” says Béchard, who is a Canadian. “My parents lived with it and I do, too. The border? It’s just there.” Gabriel Chamberland, a Canada Customs officer in Estcourt, says that several homes in the community are transected by the border. “We are very close,” says Chamberland, as he shares a coffee break in his office with his French-speaking counterpart in the U.S. Border Patrol from neighboring Estcourt Station, Me. “The Canadians go over there to buy gas. The people from Maine use our banks and stores and even hydro power.”
The closeness cited by Chamberland is common along the great length of the boundary. In terms of relations between people, the dividing line is becoming as invisible as it is in Roland Béchard’s kitchen. The borderland’s capacity to foster bonds instead of barriers now seems stronger than it ever was before. But the relationship that the border symbolizes is in a state of rapid flux. Sometimes, that change provokes aggravations. Following the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement on Jan. 1,1989, as well as a host of other changes, the border and the lands that surround it have been traversed and besieged, examined and commented upon, as perhaps never before in history. “Until recently,” says Victor Konrad, head of the Canadian-American Center at the University of Maine in Orono, “the border has always been seen as something benign and not very interesting.” But, says Konrad, who heads an international project set up to study U.S.Canada border issues and borderlands, “it is no longer as quiet and unassuming as it looks. The whole notion of our border is changing.”
On the map, it remains much as it has been for more than a century. From the Bay of Fundy, in Canada’s eastern Maritime provinces, the border zigs and zags through an array of landscapes: forest and river, industrial heartland and lake, until it straightens out across the Prairies and climbs through the Rockies to the Pacific. Its western extremity lies on the Alaska-Yukon shores of the icy Beaufort Sea, one-fifth of the Earth’s circumference distant from Fundy. It has often been celebrated in terms used more than 20 years ago by the late U.S. senator from Illinois, Everett Dirksen, who described the boundary as a model of its kind, an “unfortified, heartwarming symbol of trust, co-operation and friendship—the symbol of a bond.”
The changes since Dirksen’s description in 1968 are borne out in statistics, social and technological patterns, and even in the world of entertainment. More people are crossing the border than ever before. In the past two years, the number of transborder crossings—many of them by Canadian shoppers after bargains— has soared. Commercial traffic has risen accordingly. There is also a sharpening awareness that airborne and water pollution cannot be contained by traditional national frontiers. Americans and Canadians are increasingly intertwined through major-league sports: they watch hockey at home; we watch baseball here. And such innovations as the fax machine, electronic mail and banking, as well as the proliferation of cable television, have, says Konrad, “tended to make the border superfluous.”
At the same time, the border’s profile has been heightened. In recent weeks, Canadian truckers, protesting regulations that they say favor American competitors, choked alreadyteeming border points with their vehicles. And it is a disquieting, if clear, reality that international drug barons, as well as smugglers of refugees, find the border a profitable way station in their illegal trades. The border has also become a media celebrity: it is the central feature of the CTV network’s Old West Bordertown series and a brooding presence in ABC TV’s widely followed mystery series Twin Peaks.
The line is being breached as never before, mainly by Canadians who—as a result of reduced or abolished duties under the Free Trade Agreement—are buying everything from their daily bread to newly duty-free computers at bargain prices. Says John Winter, president of a Toronto retail consulting firm that has prepared a study on the impact of transborder shopping on Canadian merchants in Ontario’s Niagara region: “It has turned from a trickle to a flood in the last year.” Winter says that, although tariff reductions have not yet made dramatic differences in the price of most items, “the expectations are high.”
For many Canadians who live bunched along the borderline—the great majority—transborder shopping trips have become routine. Wayne Lee, 34, manager of a display company in North Vancouver, B.C., accompanied by his wife, Patricia, and two children, Jessica and Melanie, makes a monthly trip 40 km south to Bellingham, Wash., after carefully researching sales and prices south of the border. It can be a mini-vacation, says Lee. “On a Saturday, we end up at a family buffet resturant that charges children 50 cents for each year of their age. So my children enjoy their meal for $1.50 and $3. It’s a nice family outing.” But, say Lee and other confirmed transborder shoppers, it is also good business. Lee explains: “If the average family spends $500 a month on food, they could get it for $375 down there—in Canadian funds, factoring in the exchange and any duty.” In Windsor, Ont., whose border crossings with neighboring Detroit are rated the world’s busiest, James and Marie Lengyel and children Holly, 8, and Ryan, 4, also drive to the other side about once a month. They take the 40minute drive to the huge Detroit retail outlet called Pace, which charges member clients an annual fee of $25 in U.S. funds. James Lengyel describes their savings as “unbelievable.” Their purchases range from the mundane (a gallon of milk at 99 cents) to the splendid (a living-room ensemble of couch, love seat, a recliner and three tables for the equivalent of $2,000 Canadian). And according to Pace employee Vandel Polak, “On Sundays, 99 per cent of our customers are Canadians.”
Many American business people go out of their way to court Canadian customers. In Sweetgrass, Mont., next-door neighbor of Coutts, Alta., the Glocca Morra Cafe and Bar takes Canadian money at par every Thursday. “It really fills up here on Thursdays,” says one waitress. “But then the locals were starting to use Canadian money, so we had to make it ‘Canadians only.’ ” In Plattsburgh, N.Y., 100 km south of Montreal on Lake Champlain, Sherry Deyo, manager of Jim and Chuck’s Boot Shop in the Champlain Centres, accepts Canadian money at par on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays (roughly a 15-per-cent discount). She says that the boots in her shop, including some in materials as exotic as lizard and seabass skins, sell for twice the price in Montreal.
While American merchants welcome the business, the Canadian shopping fever has generated tensions on both sides of the border, including new pressure on Canada Customs officers. At the B.C. Pacific Highway crossing to Bellingham, Wash., which has experienced a massive increase of passenger traffic in the past five years, lineups at Canada Customs forced waits of up to five hours on the Victoria Day weekend in May. On many weekends at other high-volume crossings, lines routinely move at a crawl. Such delays discourage Americans trying to visit Canada. On the Detroit River, Audre Hanes, executive director of the Downtown Business Association in Windsor, says that “if we are going to deter tourists by making them wait an hour or longer, we are going to lose them.”
Customs officers complain that staffing has not kept pace with the increased workload. Frank Butler, president of the Windsor local of the Customs and Excise Union, says that, beginning about a year ago, officers faced “incredible increases in people crossing and revenue gathering.” Butler notes that some Canadians now are importing cars—once a prohibitively expensive process—and paying the seven-per-cent duty and 13.5-per-cent sales tax. Says Butler: “The government did not take into account the effect of free trade on us.”
In response to such complaints, Revenue Minister Otto Jelinek outlined a plan in March that he said would speed up traffic. The plan, to be instituted during the next 10 years, promises computer systems to calculate duty and replace the processing of paper forms. Titled Customs 2000, the plan also aims to deal more efficiently with the commercial transport of goods, which rose to nine million shipments in 1989 from seven million in 1982. Jelinek announced at the same time an increase in the penalties imposed on travellers caught failing to declare purchases—double the normal duty. Customs officials estimate that they are able to intercept about one in five of those failing to report purchases on returning from the United States. But Winter, the Toronto retail consultant, estimates that the catch rate on busy holiday weeken Is is only one in 20.
Other tensions may prove more difficult to resolve. In Canada, merchants complain about the loss of business to the United States. Anthony Commisso, 43, an owner of a company with five supermarkets in the Niagara region of Ontario, says that about $115 million is now being spent annually in the United States by people living in the Niagara peninsula—a dramatic increase over other years. Says Commisso, a founder of a business lobby group called Shop Ontario: “Our business is stagnating when the population in the area is increasing.” He says that in such communities as Niagara Falls, Ont., linked by bridge to the U.S. side, business is down 10 to 15 per cent. “If nothing is done, we are going to continue to lose jobs and tax revenues,” Commisso adds. “We may have to either lower our standard of living—or move to the States.”
Such concerns are echoed by Sergio Grando, manager of the Windsor-Essex County tourist office, who predicts that the introduction of a seven-per-cent federal tax on goods and services next year will increase the imbalance. American visitors, he says, already balk at the higher Canadian prices of gas, cigarettes and alcohol.“For what it costs to buy a scotch and water here,” he says, “you can buy almost a fifth of scotch in the States.”
For their part, some Americans resent the influx of Canadian shoppers. In the past year, from Bellingham to the Maine-New Brunswick border, there has been a rising chorus of complaints about ill-mannered Canadians. Says Nikki Svincek, a clerk at Detroit’s Pace store: “Some Americans refuse to come in here on the weekends; they come back on weekdays when there are no Canadians.” Others complain that the visitors snap up all the bargain items. There are also complaints of littering. Says a Niagara Falls, N.Y., police officer: “They speed on our streets. And people keep on saying how clean it is up there, but how come Canadians feel free to litter our parking lots with their old clothes?” Lee Thompson, a Canadian studies professor at the University of Vermont in Burlington, says that Canadians who “shop until they drop” in Vermont malls “are viewed the way that Canadians stereotypically view Americans—as sort of pushy, boisterous and overly assertive.”
On balance, says J. D. Johnson, chief of police in Calais, Me., a community of 4,000 across the border from St. Stephen in southern New Brunswick, “personally and professionally, I welcome Canadians; without their dollars, Ca-
lais would be a less viable community.” But he also says that there are problems, including Canadians charged with offences involving drinking and driving who do not return to court after posting a cash bail. Johnson estimates that he is holding 100 warrants for Canadians charged with drinking-and-driving offences.
Other Americans say that they are comfortable with the cross-border relationship—and aware of the benefits that it brings. Says Carolyn Harding, marketing director of Plattsburgh’s Champlain Centres, which include one of the vast new border-area malls that have sprung up in recent years: “I love Canada, period. I feel I am half-Canadian.” Harding says that about one-third of the mall customers come from the Montreal area and many Americans reciprocate the visits. “My husband and I go to Montreal to have dinner, shop, go to the opera and nightclubs.”
David Powell, 34, a property developer based in Indianapolis, is among other Americans who say that what they like about Canada is the atmosphere of “a world apart.” Powell, who has been travelling to Detroit every month on business since 1983, often stays in Windsor on his business trips. Explains Powell: “There are some very bad neighborhoods in Detroit. Once I get across the bridge, it’s so green. I am just in heaven when I am there. The people are delightful, very pleasant and open.” Mary Tominuk is among many who return the compliment. She and her husband, Stephen, have operated the Carway Gift and Coffee Shop for 37 years at the Carway crossing on the Alberta-Montana border. “I like U.S. tourists,” she
says. “Little kids ask me to talk Canadian, and often I am asked if I know their friends who live in Toronto.” Tominuk, 67, stocks 24 varieties of tea because “the tourists like the idea of a cup of tea in Canada.”
Still, for Canadian tourism officials and merchants, the rate of visits by Americans has been discouragingly flat in recent years. Fewer Americans visited Canada in 1989 than in any year since 1985. Last year, Canadians made 15.3 million visits of one day or more to the United States, while Americans coming north numbered only 12.2 million. One reason for the growing imbalance: an increase in the Canadian dollar’s exchange rate during the past four years, a rise that effectively makes Canadian goods and services more expensive for American visitors and has the reverse effect for Canadians going south. From a low point early in 1986, when the Canadian dollar exchanged for as little as 70 American cents, the rate rose in four years to above 86 cents before falling back by a cent or so more recently.
To entice more tourists across the border, the Canadian small business and tourism ministry has spent $100 million in the past five years on TV and print advertising. The minister responsible, Tom Hockin, says that effort has begun to pay off. Hockin says that, until recently, Americans for the most part viewed Canada as a country of “moose and Mounties.” Now, he told Maclean’s, opinion polls show that Canada is seen as an “exciting, interesting, urban country.” He bases that conclusion on an Ottawa-sponsored survey of 18,400 Americans earlier this year. That showed, for example, he says, that more of the Americans questioned would rather visit Montreal than New York City. It also indicated that roughly two out of three of those who had already
énced “a sophisticated, elegant dinner” on the trip.
Asked if the image battle has been won, Hockin said: “I don’t know whether to declare victory or not. But we now have an image—and it is very clear.”
But, for many Canadians and Americans who live close to the border, a retooling of image was not required. For them, the border is a fact of life, and crossing it is a daily routine. Reginald Elliott, a businessman from Presque Isle, Me., 30 km from Centreville in western New Brunswick, makes the crossing two or three times a day to tend to his company’s farming and logging opera-
visited Canada had experitions on both sides of the border. Born in New Brunswick, he married an American. The couple’s three sons all have dual citizenship. Elliott, 37, is a true creature of the borderland: he supports charities on both sides of the border, patronizes businesses in both countries and in both currencies, has both Canadian and Americans on his staff of 30 employees and watches both Canadian and American national news every night. Says Elliott: “The border is a way of life. You take the thing for granted. There is really no more difference between Maine and New Brunswick than there is between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.”
Elliott’s lifestyle expresses one of the many attitudes towards the border that Victor Konrad has found in his borderlands study from his base at the University of Maine. Says Konrad: “The border can be a barrier, a line, or a crossborder region that enhances the connection.” He says that farmers living near the border on the Great Plains—the Prairies in Canada— “tend to share the same values and are very close.” And in the mountain valleys connecting British Columbia to Idaho and Washington state, “the direction is north-south and the flow is natural.” By contrast, Konrad adds: “In Fort Erie, Ont., and Buffalo, N.Y., however close they are, people are quite different. They even speak quite differently.”
But Konrad says that scholars are coming to believe that the border and borderlands “are the crossroads of the relationship between the two countries.” And that relationship will inevitably grow closer, he predicts. “The border is more permeable,” says Konrad, who is a citi-
zen of both countries. “Free
trade is contributing to this, and so is the fact that the values of North Americans are beginning to coalesce.” It is along the world’s longest border between two nations, with its friendships and frictions alike, that the signs of that convergence of values are most clearly visible.
the eastern border for this
Vancouver, reporting from the
Calgary, on the AlbertaMontana frontier; and
Toronto Assistant Editor