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Imaginary Line: Life of an Unfinished Border

Also by Jacques Poitras

Beaverbrook: A Shattered Legacy (2007, 2008)

The Right Fight: Bernard Lord and the Conservative Dilemma (2004)



For Giselle, Sophie, and Zachary

From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,

Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,

Listening to others, considering well what they say,

Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,

Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.

I inhale great draughts of space,

The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.

— Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”

The boundary between Canada and the United States is a typically human creation; it is physically invisible, geographically illogical, militarily indefensible, and emotionally inescapable.

— Hugh L. Keenleyside, Canadian diplomat, 1929





























The Saint-François River and the Upper Saint John River Valley

“New Ireland”

Boundaries claimed by Britain and the United States, 1817-1842

The Madawaska Settlement

The Russell Road

Forest City, Maine, and Forest City, New Brunswick

The European & North American Railway and the Western Extension

Three proposed LNG sites on the Maine-New Brunswick border

The “true” Saint Croix: the Schoodic and Magaguadavic rivers

The islands of Passamaquoddy Bay and the extension of the border

The marine boundary claims around Machias Seal Island



IN JANUARY 2010, STEPHEN HARPER, the prime minister of Canada, travelled to New Brunswick to cut the ribbon at a new border crossing with the United States. The ceremony was a mere formality. For two months already, eighteen-wheeler operators, commuters, and tourists had been driving across the new black asphalt spanning the St. Croix River in barely the amount of time it took to take their passports out of their pockets.

So the bridge, the third to connect St. Stephen, New Brunswick, with Calais, Maine, was already achieving the objective for which it had been designed. As Harper himself pointed out in his speech, in eight short weeks, commercial traffic crossing the border between the two communities had increased by twenty percent. The bridge was also fulfilling a secondary purpose: the historic downtown of St. Stephen, linked to Calais since the nineteenth century, was no longer choked by long lineups of transport trucks stretching to the edge of town. And local residents, many with relatives on the other side of the border, were no longer subjected to long waits when crossing for a visit or to buy inexpensive milk or gas. Traffic was moving more efficiently on the two older bridges as trucks diverted to the new one.

By January, when Harper arrived, people on both sides of the St. Croix were already wondering how they had ever managed to function without it.

Still, politicians and their communications advisors love a good ribbon-cutting, and they positively adore them when the facility to be “opened” offers an apparent solution to a complex problem. And no problem has been more complex for Canadian prime ministers than relations with the United States, particularly following September 11, 2001. The new bridge may have made it easier for folks in St. Stephen or Calais to visit their American aunts or Canadian cousins, but what really needed to keep moving across the border was money. The modern checkpoints at each end of the new bridge featured the very latest in high-tech equipment — weights, scanners, digital imaging, and a myriad of other tools — to ensure that commerce was not impeded by tighter security.

For Harper and his government, the bridge was part of the so-called “Atlantic Gateway,” the latest in a long series of slogans used by various governments to give a visionary sheen to a new round of spending on highways, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure. This one, at least, had some basis in history: the idea was to strengthen Atlantic Canada’s ties to one of the most lucrative markets on earth, the densely populated eastern seaboard of the United States. Merchants and their goods had been crossing the St. Croix for more than a century before the border had even been drawn there. The priority now was to ensure that trade continued.

And so Harper opened a bridge that had been open for two months. At his side were his senior cabinet minister for New Brunswick, Greg Thompson — who happened to be the member of parliament for St. Stephen — and the premier of New Brunswick, Shawn Graham. They briefly toured the inspection booths and greeted the Canada Border Services Agency officers, then entered the vast, grey, antiseptic building where more than a hundred local officials, dignitaries, and Conservative Party supporters had gathered.

Early in his tenure, Harper’s public pronouncements about the United States had been closely watched by his political enemies, who routinely accused him of being too pro-American and thus too likely to surrender Canada’s interests to the superpower to the south. As opposition leader, Harper had appeared on Fox News, where he reinforced American alarmism when he described Canada’s “porous borders and immigration system.” As if to counter the perception, within days of taking office in 2006, Harper made bullish comments about Canada’s sovereignty over Arctic waters, in defiance of American claims that the U.S. did not need Canadian permission to sail through what it considered international passages.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper, New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham and MP Greg Thompson meet Canadian Border Services officers during the official opening of a new customs building at St. Stephen, New Brunswick, January 8, 2010.

(Province of New Brunswick photo)

On the banks of the St. Croix River, however, there was no need for the prime minister to calibrate his views and no political risk in embracing America. Here, the United States was such a facet of daily life that one of the leading scholars of the area, Harold Davis, had labelled it “an international community.” Harper echoed that idea in his speech. “One does not build a border crossing like this one to exclude neighbours,” he said in his flat, even-speaking style. “It is the kind of border crossing you build to welcome friends and to foster greater trade between them. For friends we are, and friends our two peoples will always be.”

The prime minister’s speechwriters had done their homework, building the remarks around the notion that St. Stephen and Calais were a microcosm of the Canada-U.S. relationship: forced together by geography yet living together in harmony most of the time, despite occasional complications. All the requisite rhetoric was there, including the words of an American president who had summered just an hour away on the New Brunswick island of Campobello. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harper recounted, had bristled at a news account of his 1936 state visit to Canada that reported he had been welcomed “with all the honours customarily accorded to a foreign ruler.” Roosevelt, Harper recounted, had responded, “I’ve never heard a Canadian refer to an American as a foreigner. He is just an American. And in the same way, in the United States, Canadians are not foreigners. They are Canadians.”

The normally taciturn Harper chuckled as he reached further back in time for an even better anecdote. “I love this story,” he smiled, recounting what had happened when British officials prepared for invasion along the St. Croix at the outbreak of the War of 1812. Despite the hostilities elsewhere, “St. Stephen actually gave Calais gunpowder to bolster its Independence Day celebrations,” he said, as the crowd issued a knowing murmur of approval.

Thompson, the local MP, may have been engaging in hyperbole when he predicted, during his turn at the podium, that “historians will look back on this as a very defining moment, a turning point for Atlantic Canada and the northeastern seaboard of the United States.” But Thompson, who knew his local history, could not help but see Harper’s photo-op as part of a much larger story. It swept back to 1604, when Samuel de Champlain landed on a small island just eight miles downriver from the new bridge. Though the settlement lasted only a single winter, it left behind a landmark that eighteenth-century negotiators would use to mark the boundary between the United States and the British colonies.

Even closer to the new bridge was a glimpse of the future of that imaginary line. Just a mile away, hanging about a hundred feet above the river’s current, a set of three ordinary-looking power transmission cables connect to a small dam across the St. Croix. They allow this small corner of Maine, isolated from New England’s vast electricity transmission network, to plug into New Brunswick’s grid — a physical manifestation of a growing trade in energy that is likely to define the next century of Canada-U.S. relations on the eastern half of the continent.

The two countries, and New Brunswick and Maine in particular, were so deeply linked by history, blood, and trade that they would not be able extricate themselves from the relationship if they wanted to. This was, Harper suggested, an example to the world. “No two nations on earth,” he told the crowd, “have worried less about the line on the map that divides them and more about how to build good will across it.”


For years, the only apprehension most New Brunswickers had experienced at the border was during the return to Canada, when they had to decide whether to declare the American goods they had purchased and pay the tax and duties or to stuff some of the items beneath a seat or a coat and play the odds that Customs officers would not search the car. Beyond that, the border was not to be feared. It was merely an administrative marker where one country gave way to another.

Yet in other ways it was a powerful symbol. During the existential debate over free trade in the 1988 Canadian election, the Liberals jolted the campaign with a television ad showing fictitious U.S. and Canadian negotiators finalizing the agreement. “There’s one line I’d like to change,” the American said, using an eraser to remove the border from a map of the two countries.

Borders have captured my imagination, and have been a subtext of my journalism, for more than two decades. A year after that free-trade election came the first great defining geopolitical moment of my generation: the Berlin Wall fell and, across the middle of Europe, checkpoints opened, barbed-wire fences came down, and people streamed across previously forbidden frontiers. I was one of them: on a January night in 1993, I was on a night train from Frankfurt to Prague, unable to sleep, when it halted just inside what had once been the Iron Curtain. A vestigial ritual of the Cold War played out: surly young men speaking in indecipherable Slavic tones moved through the compartments, looking suspiciously at Western passports before grudgingly stamping them. It felt like I was leaving the West behind; in fact, the West was following me across the border. By the end of the 1990s, the region was integrating rapidly into NATO and the European Union. On a return visit in the summer of 2001, I marvelled not only at the robust democracy and the consumerist culture but also at the new generation of relaxed, smiling Czech border guards. In one corner of the globe, at least, the promise of a world without borders seemed tantalizingly close to being fulfilled.

Prague made me a believer in vanishing borders. The American journalist and author Robert Kaplan, one of the leading chroniclers of the idea, perceived a darker side to the trend. The evaporation of arbitrary, politically imposed boundaries was allowing ancient impulses — long-contained ethnic grievances, trading patterns, and rivalries over natural resources — to re-emerge, often violently. In 1998, Kaplan, who had written on Afghanistan, the Balkans, and the developing world, turned his apocalyptic lens on his own country. In a journey across the United States, chronicled in his book An Empire Wilderness, he observed hardening race and class divisions, hollowed-out inner cities, and pressures of geography, climate, and history, all of them threatening to splinter the country.

Given what he considered the inevitable collapse of Canada — a popular prediction at the time, given Québec had come close to voting to separate in 1995 — Kaplan presumed that natural north-south links between American border states and their neighbouring Canadian provinces would soon reassert themselves and “unleash cross-border energies everywhere on the continent.” Though his forecast of Canada’s demise and the emergence of a Swiss-style North American confederacy of regions has not come to pass, the idea of a regional trading bloc melding New England and the Maritimes, with the New Brunswick-Maine border as its fulcrum, has gained favour among the political and business élite. A 2006 roundtable convened by the Canadian government to discuss “cross-border regions” found the Maritime-New England dynamic distinguished by the “importance of history and geography” and a “strong sense of regional identity,” two favourite Kaplan themes.

The second great defining moment of my generation was September 11, 2001, which effectively shattered the vanishing-border era. Like many other journalists, my first instinct that day was to get to the border as quickly as possible to see what was happening. The morning after the attacks, I drove from Fredericton, the capital of New Brunswick, to the land crossing at Houlton, Maine, the northeastern terminus of Interstate 95. After submitting to a thorough security sweep of the CBC vehicle, I headed to the Houlton hospital, where Tammy Chase, one of the many Canadian nurses who commuted across the border to Maine every day, told me her family had asked her to stay home. “The sense was there yesterday, ‘Why are you going into that country where everything is happening?’”

Despite the attacks, Tom Moakler, the American hospital administrator, had been over to Florenceville, New Brunswick, the night before for his regular indoor tennis game with his daughter. “I was debating whether to go over because I thought there might be a long line, but there wasn’t,” he said, visibly relieved. Both Chase and Moakler were hopeful the border would not change, but in the main waiting room, George Solesky of Monticello, Maine, a regular visitor to New Brunswick, was less optimistic. “I don’t want it to affect us,” he told me. “Usually this is what happens. We get inconvenienced because of the crooked people. I mean, why are we always inconvenienced to solve these problems? And it still doesn’t solve the problem.”

Solesky was prescient. The border was changing. Before 2001, the stories I filed from Maine reflected a porous boundary: there were the American school kids attending French immersion classes as part of an effort, inspired by bilingual New Brunswick next door, to salvage their francophone culture. Or the merchants and industries in New Brunswick and Maine who watched as a fluctuating exchange rate sent bargain-hungry shoppers stampeding first in one direction across the line, then the other. Late in 2001, though, my border stories began to reflect a harder edge. A month after 9/11, I was in Lubec, Maine, the easternmost town in the United States and the closest piece of mainland for the residents of Campobello Island, New Brunswick. “The border tightened up that day,” Terri Greene told me as we sat in a local coffee shop and watched the international bridge vanish in a thick fog, then reappear. “There were more officers on both sides, and they were asking more questions, and they were going through everything that was in each vehicle that came across, and being very, very careful of what, and who, came across the border. If anyone was any question at all, they were sent back, or sometimes they were detained and questioned.”

Greene was born in Lubec, but she and her husband Afton lived on Campobello, where he had been raised. Their story was typical of a more idyllic time on the border. They began dating before the international bridge was built in 1962. “There was a car ferry,” Terri told me, “but in the evening the car ferry didn’t run, and if anyone wanted to come from Campobello to Lubec, they had to come by rowboat.” Afton picked up the story: “Most island guys certainly thought the American girls were much prettier, and there was more going on in the town of Lubec, so the only way we had to get across was to get a dory and row across. There was a lot of tide here in the narrows. Lot of wind came in. Snow, sleet. But I always got through. I look back on it today and I wonder. I must have been crazy. But I guess maybe that’s what girls will do to you.” Now they feared how increased security would affect the relationship between Lubec and Campobello. “We feel the same toward each other as we always have, yet there’s just that little bit of difference on the border,” Terri said. “There is an undercurrent that wasn’t there before.”

Canadian author James Laxer was researching his book The Border when the 9/11 attacks took place. Laxer lamented the increase in U.S. border security, but only in passing. His book was more of a lament for American foreign policy in general, and a recap of standard left-wing tropes about the United States. Laxer rejected Kaplan’s notion of a north-south axis defining the cross-border relationship, citing instead Canadian political economist Harold Innis and historian Donald Creighton, who had argued that Canada was defined by the east-west commercial-communications path of its waterways, most notably the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. “Understood this way, the logic of a Canada that was separate from the United States jumped out at them,” Laxer writes. Left unsaid was where New Brunswick and the Maritimes, a geographical and geological extension of New England, fit into this St. Lawrence-centred vision.

No matter: the border, Laxer argued, is a protective barrier against the United States. He called for Canada to strengthen its own border security to keep America, and everything it represented, at bay. His view appeared to prevail: between 2005 and 2009, the number of passenger vehicles travelling between St. Stephen and Calais, the busiest crossing between the Maritimes and New England, dropped by twenty-two percent. The relationship appeared to have changed forever.


After Harper finished his remarks, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Jacobson, stepped to the podium. “I can assure you that feeling of brotherhood and camaraderie is felt by people on my side of the border as well,” said Jacobson, a Chicago lawyer and a top fundraiser for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign. Like Harper, the ambassador sprinkled local references into his speech, mentioning how delighted he was to return to St. Stephen for more of the town’s famous Ganong chocolates. This was another reminder that the ceremony was marking something that had actually occurred two months earlier: Jacobson had scored his first batch of chocolates when he had come to cut the ribbon at the Calais end of the bridge in November 2009. “Some things are important enough that you do them twice,” he joked, turning the lack of coordination among governments into a crowd-pleasing punchline.

When Harper returned to the podium to take questions from reporters, however, it became apparent that the ribbon-cuttings weren’t the only thing out of sync in the international community of the St. Croix. Despite the professions of long-standing friendship, there were still two countries here, and two definitions of the national interest. A reporter from a local New Brunswick weekly newspaper was the first to raise an issue that, like the new bridge itself, was both international and profoundly local: a dispute between Canada and the United States over liquefied natural gas terminals that developers wanted to build on the American side of Passamaquoddy Bay and the St. Croix. “I think you know our position on this,” Harper told the reporter. “There are things from time to time on which we don’t agree with our American friends. Our position is that those are sovereign Canadian waters. We oppose the tanker traffic through this passage and we continue to make representations to the highest level of the American government.” A second journalist pressed the matter: would the Canadian government pass a regulation to explicitly ban the tankers? “The government will examine all of its options,” the prime minister said. “Obviously our preference is to work with our American friends to try and find a resolution to this issue.”

The Canadians in the room, most of whom opposed the Maine LNG proposals because of their potential impact on the environment and tourism in the area, were heartened. Despite the caricatures of the prime minister as an American lackey, his opposition seemed genuine and firm. The American mayors and business leaders, however, were dismayed. For them, the LNG proposals meant badly needed jobs in an isolated, economically depressed coastal area at the easternmost edge of the United States. But the border gave Canada leverage, and Harper seemed inclined to use it.

Borders are crucibles, places where populations and countries collide: how they manage that collision says much about them. In the twenty-first century, Canada and the United States seem once again to face a choice between Kaplan’s vision of a north-south axis and Laxer’s concept of east-west fortresses.

In my travels I have crossed borders that barely mattered, in the European Union; that were frighteningly militarized, between China and Mongolia; and that were seethingly, ethnically ambiguous, in the former Yugoslavia. The New Brunswick-Maine border, an accident of history, has been like all of those borders at different times. “In places, the border feels arbitrary,” James Laxer writes. It felt arbitrary because it was — and it still is. It began as a boundary of the imagination, a line drawn by politicians and diplomats, and then it became quite real. Yet even today it feels unresolved.

That is why it tells us such a compelling story about ourselves.



C’est la langue des ancêtres du Maine.

C’est comme un rêve, ces mots étranges

qui chantent comme les flocons . . .

— Laurence Hutchman, “Driving to Fort Kent in a Mid-Spring Snowfall”

I thought that if the commissioners themselves, and the King of Holland with them, had spent a few days here, with their packs upon their backs, looking for that ‘highland,’ they would have had an interesting time, and perhaps it would have modified their view of the question somewhat.

— Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods, 1864


THE LOON'S CRIES HAVE FADED somewhere behind us as our canoe moves up the narrow channel. The river widens, opening up into the bottom of a wide, long body of water called Beau Lac. Ahead, a young eagle skims the treetops, following the edge of the water. The bird carves a long arc in the blue sky, then flies away in a straight line up the middle of the lake. There is silence as the engine stops. The treetops of a distant hill appear to slide behind a closer hill, an illusion created as the boat, seemingly still, drifts in the current beneath the noontime sun.


The borders of Québec, Maine, and New Brunswick meet at the bottom of Beau Lac.

It feels as if nothing here has changed for centuries: loons, eagles, and beaver dams. The water, flowing south. And the trees. There is no sign whatsoever of what we call civilization.

Earlier, downstream, on Glazier Lake and Grew Pond, we saw a scattering of small boats, each of them holding one or two people fishing close to the western or eastern shore. They were all locals: the Saint-François waterway is largely unknown except to a small number of serious fishermen and to residents of nearby towns, of which there are few. Even they rarely venture to where we are now. There are no good roads leading this far, and the trip by boat took about forty-five minutes — and that was after getting to the lakeshore in the first place.

We also glimpsed markers on each shore, white reference monuments used to measure the precise location of the invisible line we followed up the Saint-François waterway. It is this line, an artificial, invisible construct, that I have come to “see.” I am right on top of it now: it runs from bow to stern below the canoe. And there is another line cutting across the lake to meet it. It, too, exists only in treaties and on maps, so I do not immediately realize, as we sit here in the current, that we have reached our destination.

A voice behind me breaks the silence. “Maine is there,” says the other man in the canoe, and I glance to the left, to the western shore, perhaps twenty feet away. “And New Brunswick is here,” he adds as I look to the right, to thick trees at land’s edge, twenty feet in the other direction.

I turn in time to see Dr. Yves Carrier point a few feet farther up the same eastern shore. “And Québec is there,” he says at last. “So this is the spot.”

Depending on your perspective — and here, I am learning, much depends on your perspective — this is where New Brunswick’s Madawaska panhandle thrusts itself between the hinterlands of Québec and the United States, or where the northern tip of Maine is wedged into the narrow meeting place of two Canadian provinces. Either way, this is where the international boundary between New Brunswick and Maine begins. Any exploration of that boundary has to begin here as well. And when I asked around for someone to bring me to this starting point so I could see the exact location with my own eyes, I was told to contact Yves Carrier: physician, community activist, environmentalist, and forceful defender of the Rivière Saint-François.

From behind the sunglasses perched on his impish face, Carrier watches and waits a good long time to let me take in the moment. Only when I signal that I have absorbed it does he fire up the motor, turn us around, and point the nose of the canoe straight down the Saint-François. We ease up to cruising speed, following the current, and the border, back towards the Saint John River.

The Saint-François flows down from a line of hills in Québec that separates the St. Lawrence watershed from that of the Saint John, which is why Carrier is among those who believe the United States got a raw deal in the Treaty of Washington, the document which, in 1842, drew the international boundary along our path. The debate over the border, which almost led to a war, was based on a single word, “highlands,” in an earlier treaty of 1783. The American interpretation — that the drafters of that previous agreement clearly meant the line of hills Carrier referred to — would have given the United States everything below those highlands, including both shores of the Saint-François and of the Saint John.

But London, Carrier says, played a clever game by muddying the waters. “The British always interpreted it like it was confusing, but it wasn’t confusing at all,” he calls to me over the hum of the little motor at the back of the canoe. “Everyone knew the highlands because of the portages. You rowed up the streams of the St. Lawrence, you got out, you did your portage and you got back in. Those were the highlands. Everyone who’d been through this area, from Champlain on down, knew that area as the highlands. It was a good way to draw a border. It was logical, because whoever controlled the watershed controlled the territory. Champlain met natives around what’s now Saint John, whom he’d met at Tadoussac, and they told him about the Madawaska portage. But when it came time to interpret the treaty, the British said it was a mess. It was ‘confusing.’” He pauses for effect. “Everyone knew where they were. No contest. But it created a fight that went on for decades.”


The Saint-François River and the Upper Saint John River Valley.

Other than as an obvious physical barrier — though in some narrow sections, it is barely that — there is nothing about the Saint-François that makes sense as a border. It is so arbitrary that a local legend holds that it was an accident, or worse. One story has it that when surveyors arrived in Clair, New Brunswick, on the Saint John River, to mark the line in the 1842 treaty, they spent too much time drinking at a local inn before continuing on their intended course southwest up the Saint John. And whether by mistake, or encouraged by crafty Americans who saw a chance to snatch some extra territory, they found themselves staggering northwest, surveying the Saint-François, believing it to be the Saint John. “Now this is a story and I will not vouch for it,” Jim Connors, a descendant of some of the early settlers to the area, recalled once in an oral history interview with researchers from the University of Maine.

The story is, in fact, fiction. The Treaty of Washington specifies that the border runs up the Saint John to the mouth of the Saint-François, then veers northwest to follow that river. The line is where it was supposed to be, and is not the result of insidious motives. But the folklore surrounding it is a measure of its illogical configuration and the chicanery that went into its creation.


Dr. Yves Carrier keeps to the Canadian side on the Saint-François River.

Carrier keeps the canoe to the left, close to the Canadian shore, as we continue downstream, though at times he uses a flick of his paddle to steer us into American territory when he needs to avoid shallows or navigate rapids. There is a risk of arrest, though if U.S. border officers suddenly come crashing out of the woods, it will take only a moment to nose back into Canadian territory. On our way up the river, Carrier points out the mouth of a stream on the American side. In the years after Prohibition, a local Canadian set up a floating cottage there to cater to lumbermen from Allagash, a Maine logging town that remained dry. They would travel up a logging trail to the lake and take a small boat out to the cottage. “They played cards and had a few drinks,” Carrier says. “And when U.S. Customs were around, they anchored themselves across the line so that U.S. Customs had no jurisdiction. And when the RCMP were around, they’d go back across to the other side of the line.”

I met Carrier earlier in the day at his house near the village of Clair, and we followed Route 205 along the north bank of the Saint John River, deeper into the panhandle, towards the mouth of the Saint-François. Across the river, Maine’s Highway 161 followed the south bank. Carrier, raised in Edmundston, the largest nearby city, loves this remote part of Madawaska County: as a young medical intern in Toronto, he heard a song about the region one night on Radio-Canada, and decided to come home. He eventually immersed himself in the history and the natural beauty of the upper Saint John, an outdoorsman’s paradise of green hills and concealed lakes.

It is also a landscape shaped by an international boundary. Since 1842, the border has defined the local timber industry, the practice of religion, and the language spoken among friends. It spawned a smuggling empire in the small villages on the New Brunswick side. “Until the Second World War, the border was really a suggestion,” Carrier says. “The guys from over there came to see the girls over here, and the guys from over here went to see the girls over there. There were marriages of people from both sides. But after the war, the border became stricter. Visas were harder to get.” Even so, as a young man, Carrier paid it little heed. He often crossed the bridge from Edmundston, which had no public pool, to the town of Madawaska, Maine, to go swimming. His first girlfriend was from there. Today, he refuses on principle to order a passport, which the United States now requires of visitors, even those who, for decades, considered the American side of the Saint John to be part of their homeland.

In the places that matter to Carrier, on the rivers that feed his soul, he can still imagine that the border does not exist at all. At the northern end of Grew Pond, where it narrows into another channel, we come within twenty feet of another canoe. The sun is overhead and two young, beefy guys have their shirts off and their lines in the water. Maybe we stray into their country, or they drift into ours. More likely, the border is somewhere between our two boats. They are close enough to exchange greetings, in the way that men of the river do, without raising their voices.

“Is that a two-stroke?” one of them asks Carrier, nodding at his small engine.

“Yeah, a two-stroke,” he answers.

“Nice day,” says the American.

“You too,” Carrier calls over his shoulder as we continue on.

I spot a web address on the side of their canoe, and a few days after my trip down the Saint-François, I track down the young man in the boat. His name is Benjamin Rioux, and he is a college student from Fort Kent, Maine, who spends his summers tying flies, field-testing L.L. Bean fishing gear, and guiding fishermen on the lakes and the rivers of the Great North Woods of Maine. “It’s almost like you forget when you’re on the water that it’s two different countries,” he says over the phone. “We’ve caught ourselves a few times when we were going to dock on the Canadian side and we say, ‘We can’t dock there, that’s Canada.’

“People who we bring there who’ve never been there before think it’s so cool: ‘That’s Canada.’ They just can’t get over it. They say, ‘I can’t believe that’s Canada — that’s wicked neat.’” And something else is at work on the border, something more intimate, and yet so powerful that even Rioux’s guests notice it. “They sort of comment on how everybody seems so nice, and everybody’s the same, and you can’t really tell that there’s a difference in culture, or in background.”

The last incorporated municipality on the New Brunswick side of the Saint John is named for the nearby river: Saint-François de Madawaska. On the Maine side a few miles further up, directly across from the mouth of the Saint-François, is an American hamlet with an anglicized version of the name, St. Francis, though it was not always called that. “I was coming down the river once and I met a man on the American side who was fishing,” Carrier says. “We started chatting. He was francophone, but I noticed his pick-up had an American license plate, so I asked where he was from. ‘I’m from Saint-François,’ he said. I didn’t know him, and there aren’t too many people I don’t know in Saint-François. I said, ‘You come from Saint-François?’ and he said, ‘Yeah. I live just up there.’ I said, ‘Ah, St. Francis.’ ‘Oui, Saint-François.’ One or two generations ago, it was still Saint-François, even on the American side.”

Lloyd Woods, the former head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in nearby Madawaska, Maine, used to ask students on his school visits, “How many here have travelled to a foreign country in the last six months?” Two or three students would raise their hands. “How many of you have travelled to Canada in the last six months?” Every hand in the class would go up.

The border has been here for more than a century and a half, but it still has not completely divided what was once a single settlement. The Upper Saint John is precisely the opposite of Lord Durham’s infamous description of British North America as “two nations warring within the bosom of a single state.” Here, there is a single French culture straddling the imaginary line between two countries. “They’re borders that were put here after the area was settled,” Carrier says. “We have the same language, the same culture. Here it’s become more francisized, and there it’s more anglicized, but the DNA is the same.”

On the New Brunswick side, the francophones who dominate the population of Madawaska County are known as Brayons, a mix of Acadians who came north after the Loyalists moved into southern New Brunswick and Québécois who migrated in subsequent decades. On the Maine side, there is the same heritage, though people tend to refer to their origins simply as Acadian. The towns along the American side of the Upper Saint John — Van Buren, Madawaska, Grande Isle, St. Agatha, Frenchville, Fort Kent — are all part of Aroostook County, the state’s northernmost county and the one most associated with the view of Maine as a great, rustic expanse of forest. In 2000, more than twenty-four percent of Aroostook’s population spoke French at home, a startling statistic to Canadians who see the United States as a cultural melting pot. In Rioux’s hometown, Fort Kent, the largest town and the administrative hub of the area, only fourteen hundred of four thousand residents reported speaking English at home; the remainder spoke French, and of them, more than six hundred said they did not speak English well.

Even those numbers are historically low, however, and they continue to drop: one teacher reported in 1993 that in the Fort Kent area, only ten to fifteen percent of middle-school students understood and could speak French, even though almost half of their parents could do so. In nearby Frenchville, almost all students in the first to third grades could repeat phrases, sing songs, and understand conversations in French, but by the fourth grade, it was “more difficult to make them speak French,” a teacher said. “They become self-conscious or peer pressure steps in and they don’t want to try.”

Rioux, the child of a Franco-American family, is typical of his generation. “In my family most of the older people speak it. I’m getting better with it, but I don’t speak it myself. My grandparents are all completely bilingual, my parents are completely bilingual, so I definitely see in my family and other families that there’s a big generation gap there where it’s completely faded out, which is a concern. It’s actually shameful, from my personal perspective, because I’d like to speak it. I think it’s sad that it’s fading away. What’s happening up here, especially in the last five years, is so many more people are moving away, or going to college somewhere where French isn’t required. Very few people are sticking around here and are in need of that second language.”

Outside the northern reaches of Maine, he adds, few people even grasp why he would lament such a loss. “The whole arrogance — Americans just sort of seem arrogant about knowing different languages. ‘English first,’ ‘English only’ is a lot of what I see and what I hear, even with my close friends.”

There is one culture here, but the border has created two different approaches to it. The American way has been towards assimilation, even if the Valley’s geographical isolation slowed the process for more than a century. In Canada, and in New Brunswick, the notion of two founding peoples gave rise to schools and other institutions designed to protect the French language. “The American ‘melting pot’ tried to get rid of the French in northern Maine, while with Trudeau, on our side, French was flourishing,” Carrier says. Today, “I don’t think anyone would contest that English is the official language of the United States. People over there still speak French, the way others speak Spanish or Chinese.” An annual Acadian festival has been held in Fort Kent since the 1970s, but daily life is less and less French. “There’s a bit of a return to the roots,” he says, “but it’s more folkloric than anything.”

Until 2001, the border still was porous enough for the Upper Valley to think of itself as a single community. But it was not quite porous enough, even then, for the French language to flourish in Maine, even with a robust official bilingualism across the river in Canada serving as an example. Today, as surely as two countries nudge up against each other here on the Saint-François, the notion of an easily forgotten border is pressing up against the reality of post-9/11 America — which often pushes back.


Yves Carrier steers his canoe back to shore and loads it onto the trailer on the back of his truck. We drive away from the lake, up a steep hill, and back onto the main road. We quickly come upon a collection of campers and trailers lining both sides of the road, a remnant of one of his many idealistic schemes for the river. In 1996, Carrier launched an eco-campground here, on Crown-owned land, envisioning a zero-impact facility that would exist in harmony with the unspoiled surroundings. Now he nods ruefully towards scattered plastic bags and empty beer cans. “That’s my environmental park,” Carrier says. “It didn’t go the way I wanted, but hey, that’s democracy. The majority prevails.”

We follow the dirt road back down to the mouth of the Saint-François, the Maine shore flickering through the trees. The dirt road bends to the left when it reaches the Saint John, following the border as it enters the larger river. Two large flat islands, one American, one Canadian, sit in the current there. The Saint John is shallow today, with dried-out slopes of exposed mud and rock visible. The road is narrow, the trees press in close again, and only a few homes break the monotony of this last road at the far edge of New Brunswick. Then the road turns to asphalt, the shoulders widen out, and there are wide fields opening up to our right, running down to the river, and larger homes dotting the landscape. I thank Carrier at his house and drive on in my own car to Clair, a village with a smattering of the usual small-town essential services — gas stations, restaurants, a bank or two, and a government-owned liquor store. Clair is defined primarily, however, by the eighty-year-old steel truss bridge across the river connecting it to Fort Kent, Maine. This is the first of New Brunswick’s official border crossings with the United States that I will encounter.

The two towns were reaching out to each other, across the Saint John and the border, long before the bridge was completed in 1930. Ferries worked the river, and a privately owned footbridge, built and maintained by the Long family of Fort Kent, allowed for quicker, more spontaneous visits. Large cables, three inches in diameter, held the four-foot-wide structure in place atop half a dozen piers. It could be a nerve-wracking crossing: locals moving horses and cows across put bags over the animals’ heads to prevent them from recoiling in fear from the sight of the river below. The Longs charged a nickel per crossing, and John Allen Page, a descendant of the owners, once claimed that his grandmother collected twenty to twenty-two thousand dollars per year in tolls — though she did charge a premium after the official closing time of nine o’clock at night. “A person would holler to my grandmother to open the bridge and she’d charge them fifty cents,” he recalled.

There were no customs checkpoints at the time. People arriving in Fort Kent were to report at the home of the local customs officer, though enforcement was slack. Page recalled a Fort Kent man who found two pigs he needed in Clair. Rather than deal with customs, “he took a baby carriage, he went across, he put the two pigs in it, and he walked across.” Workers building the steel truss bridge at the end of the 1920s used the footbridge as a staging area; once they were finished, the Canadian government tore down the older span. Now the 1930 bridge was to be replaced as well: the New Brunswick and Maine governments announced in 2010 they would share the cost of a planning study for a new link. Because there is a tradition of alternation, and Maine had overseen the recent St. Stephen–Calais project opened by Stephen Harper, New Brunswick was taking the lead on the engineering, contracting, and construction of the new Clair-Fort Kent bridge, though the two governments would, as usual, split the final bill.

I drive across and slow down as I reach American soil, edging up to the stop line painted on the pavement. On the other side of the border checkpoint, I see traffic moving along U.S. Route 1, the epic road that begins in Fort Kent and stretches more than two thousand miles down the Atlantic coast to Key West.

My reverie about the road is broken when I see a deep rectangular hole, large enough to swallow a small car, directly in front of one of the customs booths. Some new security technology is about to be installed directly below the spot where drivers stop their vehicles to check in. The construction means only one entry lane is open, so I have to wait several minutes. Finally I am signalled to advance, and I tell the officer I have come to Fort Kent to research a book about the border. He asks me to park and go inside for questioning while my car is searched.

The interview indoors is perfunctory and polite, and every item in my bag, which I left in the car, is returned to precisely the position in which I packed it. I take various Department of Homeland Security brochures from the display cases inside, including versions in French. Though they are obviously aimed at francophone Canadians from Madawaska County and nearby Québec, they are another nod to the ethnocultural reality of the Upper Saint John. The names in the weekly newspaper on the American side, the St. John Valley Times, from advertisements to obituaries to local baseball boxscores, mirror those from across the river: Michaud, Cyr, Guerrette, Bergeron, Thibeault, Bonenfant, Rossignol, Paradis, Faucher, Daigle.

But at the local McDonald’s, where I stop for lunch, there is more evidence of what Rioux told me. Older customers are speaking French, while the younger ones converse mostly in English, another sign of how the turning of the generations is changing this side of the border.

At a nursing home on a hill overlooking the Saint John River and the New Brunswick shore, I find Marvin Jandreau, who speaks to me about life in the Valley when it was still isolated from the rest of the United States, and when New Brunswick was more of a defining fact of life than southern Maine. With a flick of his thumb, he steers the wheelchair carrying his once-powerful frame into a common room where we are able to talk. He describes learning English only when he began attending school — French was permitted outside, but not in the classroom — and of his life working in the woods and driving a truck. Stiffened by a stroke, he describes, with an easily detected French accent, how his children speak French and how “their kids, yeah, they’re coming along pretty good.” He recalls his entire family going to Caribou, a Maine town just outside the French-speaking Valley, to pick potatoes. “My mother couldn’t talk a word of English, and the boss, he couldn’t speak a word of French,” he says, but “between the two of them they’d understand each other.” Jandreau is less concerned about the cultural gap that assimilation was creating in the Valley than about new security measures on the border. “I had some friends over in Clair that I’ll never see again on account of needing a passport. At my age why do I need a passport to go see some friends?”

Security is the talk of the Valley. When Benjamin Rioux’s fishing guests realize they are casting lines across open water into another country, “a lot of them are surprised about the lack of security,” he tells me. “It would be so easy to cross and get into the woods and you’re gone. That’s one thing they mention — ‘how do you patrol this? Is it safe with people going back and forth illegally?’ That’s the one thing that surprises them the most.”

And, Rioux admits, they have a point: if someone wanting to enter the United States illegally goes looking for somewhere to attempt it, the Saint-François River would be a good choice. “Realistically, I’m not going to lie to you: it would probably be extremely easy,” he says. “Usually my response is that it’s so remote, that the chances of someone actually taking the time to drive up there and find their way down to Fort Kent, especially if they’ve never done it before — it would be pretty difficult. . . . I guess I have that small-town mindset that we’re safe all the time.” In Washington, the Department of Homeland Security is not nearly as sanguine: there are more patrols, more rigorous and frequent searches, and more complaints from local residents that something unique has been lost.

Beatrice Craig, a scholar who has studied the region for most of her career, sees the issue through the prism of the “borderland” concept, a theoretical framework used by many historians. First, she writes, come frontiers: regions with undefined or ill-defined boundaries where inhabitants “are free to interact as they see fit.” When rival powers contest those regions, they become borderlands. And then, “as the borders become clearly defined and enforced, borderlands become bordered lands. Local interactions are increasingly restricted, channelled from above, and subordinated to the policies and priorities of the distant governing powers.” Owing to the tradition of valley residents “behaving as if this division did not exist,” Craig considers the area to have been, from 1842 until well into the twentieth century, a land “in between,” not fitting neatly into either category. Now there is an inescapable feeling the Valley has become bordered lands.

Yves Carrier plans to resist the trend. He wants to take what is special about his river — that illusion of a natural, borderless land — and push it beyond the banks, into the woods, to encompass a larger part of what was once the “land in between.” In 2014, the fifth World Acadian Congress, a gathering of the descendants of the original French colonists in what are now the Maritime provinces, will be held for the first time astride an international border, in Madawaska County, New Brunswick, in northern, Franco-American Maine, and in the nearby Témiscouata region of Québec, from which flows the Saint-François.

In July 2010, the premier of New Brunswick and the governor of Maine established the Maine-New Brunswick Cultural Initiative to promote connections along the entire border, but particularly to help the planning of the Acadian Congress. And intense planning will be required: the region will be flooded with francophones and francophiles from across North America, who will need to cross the border repeatedly, in both directions, for various events — a movement of people that, when it confronts American security measures, could create a logistical nightmare. The fact that the local bid to host the Congress was successful was itself a show of faith that Washington might relax, just a little.

Carrier likes the idea of the Congress: he is a veteran of grand schemes. Besides his eco-campground, he has organized several editions of an “eco-challenge” that saw participants hike, cycle, and canoe through New Brunswick’s Madawaska wilderness in a race to Glazier Lake. He has also orchestrated a guided “Grande Descente” of the Upper Saint John, with passengers in large canoes making several stops on both shores for short pieces of theatre recounting the history of the region. These were all difficult to execute, but Carrier’s latest river-centred project is more ambitious still, aiming not so much to accommodate the boundary as to overcome it.

And he wants to do so by appealing to the sentiment, passed down through the generations and etched deep in the psyches of the local population, that it should not be there at all.

In Carrier’s mind, if the border can be forgotten for a couple of weeks during the Congress, why not erase it altogether, at least in a relatively small, secure area? In 2007, the Clair chamber of commerce organized an open forum to brainstorm new ideas for the local economy. Carrier went to the microphone and suggested an international park: set aside an area of forest on the Canadian side, logged by J.D. Irving Limited, and then add the Maine side as well, where Irving was also a major player in the forestry industry. A few people liked the idea, so Carrier organized meetings and presented the proposal at a conference on sustainable development in Edmundston.

That generated some media coverage and considerable controversy. “It divided people. Those who worked for Irving were against it. Those who want to develop a tourism industry, like around Kouchibouguac and Fundy Park, were for it. The Irvings were insulted that we hadn’t spoken to them before talking about it.” He wanted to gather support before approaching the company, but once the controversy upset New Brunswick’s largest employer, and Maine’s biggest landowner, political enthusiasm drained away. “We wanted to do something positive,” he sighs. “We didn’t want to start a fight.”

Carrier maintains that the idea is feasible. “Those security measures are overblown. That’s to please people in the south and the centre of the United States. There is no security problem here. They create little incidents to maintain jobs. It’s to create well-paying federal government jobs over on the other side of the border. There’s no problem at all. Other than catching the occasional person trying to sell their homegrown on the other side, there’s nothing. As for terrorism, there’ll never be any terrorists coming through here. The people who are going to commit terrorism in the United States are already there. They’re already in there on visas. They’re already set up. No terrorist is going to come through Glazier and then walk twenty-five miles through the woods to attack somebody.

“But an international park would accomplish a couple of things. First, the park would be secure. There’d only be two or three entrances to the park, and the area is so wild that those are the only places where people could go in and out anyway. And secondly, it could bring people together. Because deep down, people in the United States and Canada aren’t that different. We have the same ideas, the same way of life.”

In effect Carrier would re-create the world that existed here before 1842 — before customs, before white border monuments, before armed patrols, and before the large wooden structure that stands resolutely in a quiet neighbourhood of Fort Kent, Maine: a blockhouse, a cedar fort built in 1839 when the United States and Great Britain almost went to war over the Madawaska territory. The blockhouse, conveying heft and foreshadowing imperial power, is now a museum. It is locked shut when I pull up after my visit with Marvin Jandreau, but on a display plaque outside I find a set of lyrics:

We are marching on to Madawask,

to fight the trespassers;

we’ll teach the British how to walk

and come off conquerors.

We’ll have our land, right good and clear,

For all the English say;

They shall not cut another log,

Nor stay another day.

They need not think to have our land,

We Yankees can fight well;

We’ve whipped them twice quite manfully,

As every child can tell.

And if the tyrants say one word,

A third time we will show,

How high the Yankee spirit runs,

And what our guns can do.

They better much all stay at home,

And mind their business there;

The way we treated them before,

Made all the nations stare.

Come on! Brace fellows, one and all!

The Red-coats ne’er shall say,

We Yankees, feared to meet them armed,

So gave our land away.

We’ll feed them well with ball and shot,

We’ll cut these red-coats down,

Before we yield to them an inch

Or title of our ground.

Ye husbands, fathers, brothers, sons,

From every quarter come!

March to the bugle and the fife!

March, to the beating drum!

Onward! My lads so brave and true

Our country’s right demands

With justice, and with glory fight,

For these Aroostook lands!

Next to the plaque is a boundary marker, apparently genuine but clearly out of place, bearing — as do all those along the border — the names of James Estcourt and Albert Smith, British and American commissioners who, after the 1842 Treaty of Washington, surveyed, cleared, and marked the newly created section of the New Brunswick-Maine border, including the line that divided the French-speaking people of the Upper Saint John.

This line has endured from the signing of the treaty until the present day, even if it was the product of nothing more noble than politics, diplomatic trade-offs, and deceit.


RICHARD OSWALD HAD CLEARLY ARRIVED. The son of a Presbyterian minister in Dunnet, a tiny hamlet on the northern tip of Scotland, he had moved to Glasgow to find his fortune and married well. His wife was an heiress from a family that owned estates in the West Indies and North America, which soon passed to Oswald. By the standards of the eighteenth century, the two enterprises on which he expanded his fortune — war and slavery — were nothing to be ashamed of. He profited from the Seven Years’ War as a contractor supplying troops in Europe, and with London partners, established an island trading station in West Africa for slaves bound for America.

And now, in 1782, this man of modest beginnings was in Paris to help shape the fates of empires. He was sitting across a table from three men who would be revered in history as Founding Fathers of their nation: Benjamin Franklin, the author, scientist, philosopher and statesman sometimes described as the “first American”; John Adams, co-author of the Declaration of Independence and later the second President of the United States; and John Jay, later the first Chief Justice of the United States. Their task was to negotiate a peace treaty between Britain and its newly independent former colonies, an agreement that would end the Revolutionary War and define the new boundary between the United States and the remaining colonies of British North America.

Despite his relatively humble origins, Oswald was highly regarded by the powerful men who had chosen him for the job. Benjamin Vaughn, an acquaintance of Lord Shelburne, the British colonial secretary who sent Oswald to Paris, said Oswald “thought for himself. His manners were such that, though perfectly simple, he was admitted into all company; his sincerity was relied upon at first and though not given to deceive others, he was yet too experienced and observant to be long deceived himself. . . . [His] views were philanthropic and expanded, and his sense was sound; and though he had little or no scholarship, yet being retired in his habits he knew many valuable books on government and on political affairs.”

His six years as a young man in colonial Virginia gave him an understanding of America, and his experience in military and merchant affairs were a rare and valuable combination: King George III himself declared Oswald “the fittest instrument for the renewal of friendly intercourse” with the rebellious colonies.

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