Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 9, 2009

Keeping an Eye on the Longest Undefended Border in the World


Like her mother before her, Kim Prangley oversees a unique bi-national public library — the Haskell Free Library and Opera House. This historic structure straddles the U.S-Canadian border between Derby Line, Vermont in the USA and Stanstead, Québec in Canada. In one sense, the library-opera house is just a quiet place where people come to do what they do in libraries — mind their own business — but given its physical location in two nations, and sitting smack dab on what has been called the longest undefended border in the world, the Haskell is more than just a library; it is a building that transcends over 200 years of U.S.-Canada relations.

And yet it continues to operate as a local library. During a 20-minute tour, Kim takes me back and forth across an almost invisible border; the U.S.-Canada border which is 8891 kilometres long. (And, one musn’t forget the 2477-kilometre long border shared with Alaska, nor — because of global warming and a melting icecap, this geographical detail is increasingly important in terms of Canadian sovereignty — the disputed territorial claims in Arctic waters.)

But my visit to the Haskell might never have happened. I actually arrived at the front door of the library (which is in the U.S.) after having to explain to a uniformed U.S. Immigration and Customs official, who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, the reason for my impromptu and casual stroll into the U.S. across the small bridge that is an extension of the main street of Stanstead. Before taking pictures of “the other side,” I should have first registered my presence in the United States of America. Thanks, however, to my Canadian guilelessness and polite request as to what the officer recommended I see during my stay in the U.S., I eventually ended up at the Haskell.

Inside the library and the upstairs opera house, there is a black line painted on the floor bisecting the building at an oblique angle. The line is there because the building is insured by both an American and a Canadian insurance company and it must be clear which part of the building is covered under which policy. If you are in the Reading Room next to the windows with their stained glass decoration, perhaps reading Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, you are in the United States.

But if you sit on the comfortable couch in front of the fireplace to read the New Yorker magazine, you are in Canada. And if you plan to have your wedding in the opera house upstairs (as many do when family members are separated and living in the U.S. or Canada) you should know that the stage is in Canada and most of the seats downstairs, as well as the entire balcony, are in the United States. So be forewarned; if you are married on the stage, your marriage is subject to Quebec law.

Like all libraries I suppose, the Haskell is an island of tranquility in a sea of historical storms — tempests in teapots really some might say if you compare Canadian-American historical relations to the kind of violent territorial imperative that marks so much of the world’s national identity crises. But lest you think that Canada-U.S. relations have always been a smooth ride, let me assure you that the world’s longest undefended border may not be militarized nor patrolled, but it is a border that in many respects is not easily crossed.

Since 911, this border has become an issue of increasing concern especially among right-wing Republicans in the U.S. who fear that Canada has become a breeding ground and launching pad for terrorists. And for Canadians, “guns across the border” (the illegal importation of the kind of firearms that under normal circumstances you just don’t find in Canada but are common in the “gun culture” of the United States) is just one of the real issues related to this semi-permeable frontier.

But the “threat” from south of the border is a much more complex issue. For example, if you really want to raise the ire of the average Canadian, refer to him or her as an American. You may in all innocence have been making reference to a citizen of North America, but you will have touched a core neuron in the Canadian psyche. This is the very touchy realm of Canadian cultural, economic — and to a great extent — political sovereignty. And this is when that border is defended (from our side anyway) most vigorously. As Pierre Trudeau, one of our more charismatic prime ministers, said to an American audience, “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast — if I can call it that — one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” Canadians are considered “nice” North Americans and peacekeepers, but when it comes to their not being American, they can be quite defiant.

From a non-North American perspective, things may look pretty much the same on either side of the Stanstead-Derby Line. But most Canadians will assure you that nothing could be further from the truth; one crosses a very large socio-cultural divide between the U.S. and Canada.

Except for the French language — another gigantic Canadian issue — Americans visiting Québec’s Eastern Townships might think they have not left New England,. These rolling hills, rich agricultural land, and cohesive communities were once a rich hunting and fishing territory for the Abenaki people, but remained relatively unsettled until shortly after the American Revolution when a significant number of American colonists who supported “the King” moved into the area.

These “United Empire Loyalists” had spent the war either in specially created British military corps, in strongholds such as New York City, or in refugee camps. Half of those who eventually fled (between 40,000 and 50,000) came to this part of Canada when their sympathies for the British Crown brought them into serious conflict with those who supported the new republican cause.

They brought with them much of their previous lifestyles in terms of architecture, land practices, and cultural values, although most of their possessions were confiscated when they left. The main waves of Loyalist immigration to Canada occurred between 1783 and 1784. Many were generally of fairly high social and economic standing. Many were also farmers or free blacks who had served in the Loyalist corps. In the Eastern Townships today, a region in which genealogy and historical preservation are highly valued and practised, you encounter everywhere place names, family names, and many historical buildings and references that have their origins in the United States.

In the 1820s and 1830s the residents of Stanstead were actually quite politically favourable to republicanism. But this attitude in the Eastern Townships in general had undergone a relatively quick flip flop. After the War of 1812, a war that officially was between the U.S. and Britain but focussed on the colonies, “Yankees” (as they were righteously referred to) did come to represent “everything bad.” But the fact that this part of Québec was reconfigured on what was in essence a New England township model, eventually negated such anti-American feeling. As one learns in the Eastern Townships, landscape is history.

Like many areas in Canada, the Eastern Townships resonate with a firm but subdued Canadian identity; and the challenge of differentiating between “here” and “there” or between what really is a “Canadian” and an “American.” Most Canadians will tell you that there are profound socio-cultural and political issues that clearly separate “us” from “them.”

To pay a virtual visit to the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, click here.

For more information on the Eastern Townships, visit the Bonjour Québec website.

This article was first published in Emag, the inflight magazine of Eastern Airways, one of the UK’s principal regional airlines.


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