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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Life in border towns has always presented challenges for residents. But what about a community that straddles both sides of the Canada-U.S. divide?
Apr. 15, 2006. 03:59 AM


STANSTEAD, Que./DERBY LINE, Vt.—"Maria von Bookbinder, librarian at the Haskell Free Library, was hospitalized again Monday with a minor concussion. The accident marked the third time Ms. von Bookbinder has walked into the bulletproof, bombproof and subversive-book-proof Plexiglas barrier that follows the international boundary across the library's main floor ... part of the wall that is being erected between the U.S. and Canada ..."

Okay, that's an April Fool's spoof in the Chronicle weekly newspaper published on the Vermont side of the line. But as a security-obsessed United States continues to tighten its border controls with Mexico and Canada, no one in these cheek-by-jowl towns will say it couldn't ever happen; only that they pray it never does.

This is the Alice-in-Wonderland world of a cross-border community where a 19-year-old legally can drink in the bedroom of her apartment but not in the kitchen; a librarian (real, not fictitious) has had a family tradition strangled by red tape; and a retired U.S. customs officer sees small-town friendliness and an open door to strangers — "Hey, fellers, c'mon in" — frosted by officialdom in the shadow of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"It's surprising how that damned yellow line cuts us in half," says Paul Lucas, 77. "I do not know the names of my neighbours across the street. We wave and say `hi' but ..."

He shakes his head as words fail him. "It's ... unfortunate."

That "damned yellow line" is the same as lines that run down the centre of uncountable North American streets. But this one is on Canusa St.

Drive in the westbound lane on Canusa and you're in Canada; drive in the eastbound lane and you're in the U.S.A. Hence the name. On one side of the street, the people speak English; on the other they're mainly francophone.

The border has split the place — Stanstead to the north and Derby Line and Beebe Plain to the south — for more than 150 years. (Strictly speaking, Beebe Plain faces Beebe, which has been absorbed into Stanstead.) A boundary commission, formed in the early 20th century, stopped buildings going up that actually straddled the line.

What used to be an easygoing to-and-fro has been far less so since 9/11. Washington vows that by 2008 everyone, including Americans, driving into the U.S. must show their passport. A little more of the neighbourliness will be lost in Stanstead, Derby Line and Beebe Plain.

"I don't have a passport," says Rachel Sykes, 19, an American whose bedroom is in Quebec (with a lower legal drinking age) and kitchen in Vermont. "I don't know if I want to go to the bother of applying for one. Perhaps I'll just stop going into Canada. I'd have to find a new apartment, I guess." Stanstead, Derby Line and Beebe Plain have a joint population of about 4,000. There are a handful of smaller communities in the same position. Estcourt, Que., and Estcourt, Maine, for instance. Most of the Americans are francophone. At the North Portal, Sask., golf course, you tee off at the 9th in Canada and sink your putt in Portal, N.D., in a different time zone.

Sykes is studying accountancy and supports herself by cleaning houses.

She pays taxes in America and rent in Canada. She lives on one of a number of streets where, as you're driving, you suddenly see a sign saying you're in another country and should report immediately to one of the two customs posts. Do a U-turn and drive straight back and nothing's likely to happen. But locals say officials, especially on the U.S. side, will have seen you through security cameras and been alerted by sensors set in the road.

"If you just keep driving, they'll come after you," Sykes says.

She has to be careful where she parks her Vermont-registered car. A few metres the wrong way and Canadian officials have told her they could seize the vehicle.

"When I drive to my apartment from the States, I don't have to check in," she says. "But when I go back, I have to stop. Sometimes the newer customs guys don't understand. I say, `I've just come from the bottom of the hill.' It's hard for them to grasp that I haven't really been into Canada."

`This easy relationship we've always enjoyed ... it's gradually fading away'

Nancy Rumery

The Haskell Free Library and Opera House has turned itself into a tourist attraction, with tape running across the floor to mark the border. Upstairs, in the beautifully ornate little theatre, if you sit in seats F-7, I-2, J-6 or K-13, your left buttock is in Canada and your right in America.

The library entrance is in Vermont. Canadian visitors park on the Quebec side and walk across the border, unchecked, to get in.

"But if you drive here without going through customs, you're in trouble," says acting director Nancy Rumery, 42. She's Canadian but lives with her American husband Mark and their three children in Derby Line.

"When my husband was a boy, he'd go to Sunday school in Canada and just take a shortcut through people's yards. We'd have liked our kids to go to the same Sunday school. But now that means driving and reporting to customs both ways. It becomes a real hassle, so there goes a family tradition.

"This easy relationship we've always enjoyed ... it's gradually fading away. Passports could be the final nail in the coffin."

Retired teacher Liz Warlund drives to the library from nearby Lennoxville, Que. This morning, the U.S. customs officer made her switch off her car engine and open the trunk.

"That's happening more and more," Warlund says. "If they want passports, too ... well, Saturdays, a lot of people drive over from the Quebec side to fill up their cars because gas is cheaper in Vermont. They buy milk, too."

"And the Vermont lottery is better," Rumery says.

"But a lot of that will stop," Warlund says. "Who suffers most? Local American businesses."

In his 25 years with U.S. customs, Paul Lucas sometimes worked at the Beebe Plain crossing point. He and his wife Cathy, 77, aren't happy about how times continue to change.

"If I'm driving down the Canadian side of Canusa, I can't just pull across into my driveway," Cathy says. "I have to drive past my house, down to customs, tell them where I've been and then come back."

There's no sidewalk on the American side of the street so Vermonters often cross over and use the Canadian sidewalk. Technically, that's illegal. A Canada Customs officer tries to spell it out: "If you cross the street without reporting in, you're in breach of the law," she says. "Yes, it's difficult to enforce. But you're not supposed to cross the border illegally and that's what you'd be doing."

You should report even if you're just visiting a neighbour?

"Every time," she says.

But walkers are seldom pulled over. It's vehicles that attract attention. When the Lucases moved to Beebe Plain four years ago, "we'd just drive by the customs house and wave," Paul says. "Not any more. There used to be 15 to 20 U.S. customs and immigration people stationed in this area. Now there are over 70. The Canadians are much more relaxed about it."

A lot of the new officers, he says, are young, inexperienced and "don't know the local residents, conditions or traditions. It's difficult for them. But it can be very difficult for us, too. Even people going back and forth to church on the other side of the border ... they're going to be demanding passports?"

Once again, words fail him.

21,603 Posts
They should put a border around the towns, let them do their stuff in the town and report to customs if they're leaving the area. Sort of an international zone or something. Ther are similar problems here, where many people near the border drive down to Rydens store in Minnesota because it's easier than driving 10 miles to the closest larger town to buy something, the store is only a few metres away. We have a river along most of the border up here, though, there, it's running through libraries! That's amazing.

The government obviously doesn't care. Yes, the 1950s would be nice to have around again, but you aren't making that possible, Mr. Shrub. <.<

moonage daydream
1,279 Posts
I normally take the border crossing in the town as opposed to the one on the highway 50 metres away when coming back from the US. The queue is normally non existent when the highway has a wait of 30 minutes or more. Also the Customs officials use to be more relaxed, not sure any more though.

1,637 Posts
DAMN! I never thought they would ever talk about Stanstead.

I used to go there about 10 years ago. One of my good buddies used to go to Bishops university in Lennoxville(Sherbrooke) and was dating some chick who was from that town. We would drive down from montreal (about an 1 hour and 20 minute drive) on Week-ends to party in Stanstead. She was pretty hot and a bit on the slutty side, and she had some hot girlfriends!! But the Village was depressing!

One night i remember leaving the bar(where we were partying) to go look for one of my buddies. I finally found him at the end of this dead end road in the middle of some corn field. As I approached his car, i noticed the break lights going on and off. As i get closer, i notice that his crazy "Stanstead" girlfriend is sitting on him, and they are doing the dirty deed in the drivers' seat! (His foot kept on hitting the brake pedal!!!!)

So, i decide to turn around and head back to the bar, but as i'm driving back, i realize that all the liscence plates around me are green(from Vermont). That's when it hits me! I was in the U.S.!!!! I had crossed the border. (i hadn't even driven 2 KM's) As i slowly approached the border, i stopped and looked inside the border patrol building, only to see some 18 year old patrol guard(face full of zits) running down the hall to stop me.(it was about 1:30 in the morning)

I told myself that there's no way i was gonna wait for this guy(especially since I had had a few beers before), and decided to head back to the bar where the party was at.(which was half a KM down the same road).

Finally, the guy saw that i was heading back to the bar, and didn,t even bother to come and check up on us!

Ah the good old days!

347 Posts
I'm glad I've once again read an article on a Canusa. The media've hyped about this stuff for ages.

My only experience with a Canusa was White Rock, BC/Blaine, WA. Hugging the shore back in April 1993 was a swath of coastline literally only 70 metres wide containing a 'boardwalk', a single train track, a four-lane freeway, a lone fence running the direction of the these three ROWs separating the train from cars, and a railway sign reading International Boundary. Loads of strollers changing countries either way, clambering up or down the train embankent shoring the boardwalk -- even saw a homeless person pushing his belongings in a shopping cart into Canada. My friend and I didn't dare cross the unobstructed boundary coz neither of us had I.D. I scratched my head a fair bit watching the scene there a few minutes -- the train track and boardwalk continued through the USA for at least a mile (even several joggers' heads bobbing up and down) while the US customs complex obscured the freeway there.


11,656 Posts
samsonyuen said:
It always amazes me how these border towns work. It must be so strange that it feels the same, but different. I wonder if there are cases like that in US/Mexico.
they don;t straddle but mexicali is right up agaionst its california counterpart

mexicali has a huge popluation though

at this link is a map that shows the difference in size - mexical mexico is right along the border

and this photo shows mexical below the border and above is the much smaller town in california
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