The International Peace Arch between Canada and the United States. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

O Canada! Singing the Peace Arch blues

When I was growing up near the Canadian border in Whatcom County, Washington, in the 1950s and ’60s the border was a convenient and largely irrelevant smudge. It was there, and everybody knew it, and if you traveled from one country to the other you had to go through Customs, but few people really took it seriously – at least, until the Vietnam War heated up and it became an escape route for draft age young men. It was a rare day when you didn’t run into a Canadian or three on the south side of the border, or a United States citizen or three on the north. People routinely took day trips to one side of the line or the other, simply because it was mildly exotic to cross into another country, no matter how many times you’d done it before. Most everyone’s pockets jingled with both Canadian and U.S. coins, which merchants on either side of the border happily accepted at face value: They’d rather have the business and eat the sometimes dime-on-a-dollar difference in value than not have the business at all. Bellingham, the county’s biggest town, had a television station, KVOS, which locals often jokingly called CVOS because it ran so many Canadian commercials aimed at the bigger population across the line. Canadian shoppers drove down to the border town of Blaine, where the harbor was lined with the fish canneries in which many of my friends’ mothers worked during the summer months, to stock up on salmon or tuna and maybe stop at the duty-free liquor store before heading back home. And just a bit south, along the narrow crescent waterfront drive of the cotton-candy-and-Ferris-wheel getaway of Birch Bay, teen-agers from both sides of the border would cruise on weekend nights and summer days, ogling one another, giving fleshly meaning to the term “foreign affairs.” Babies came out of these flirtations. Sometimes marriages, too.

So when Cedella Roman was accosted by United States Border Patrol officers on May 21 of this year and hauled off to two weeks of imprisonment in the maw of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement machine, I knew exactly where she’d gone wrong. I grew up 15 miles south of it.

Roman, a 19-year-old Frenchwoman visiting her mother in North Delta, British Columbia, was out jogging along the waterfront when she accidentally ran past the border, at a spot where it isn’t marked, and into Washington state. Because she was wearing jogging clothes she wasn’t carrying any identification, and that might be what did her in. Or maybe what did her in was the harsh and unyielding logic of the new United States isolationism, a belligerent intransigence that seems hellbent on making enemies of our closest friends.

The International Peace Arch between Canada and the United States. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The International Peace Arch between Canada and the United States. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The spot where Roman was taken into custody overlooks Semiahmoo Bay, which flows into the Salish Sea and laps against both Blaine, on the U.S. side, and Douglas, in British Columbia, and is within a shout and a whistle of Peace Arch Park. The park is actually two conjoined parks, one operated by the provincial government of B.C. and the other by Washington state, and for children from both sides of the border it was great sport to stand inside the park’s arch, which straddles the invisible border, and plant one foot in Canada and the other in the United States. In the decades of my early memories Peace Arch Park was a picture-book garden of a place celebrating the friendly relations between the two great northern countries in North America. Canadian and U.S. citizens alike would pack a picnic, drive to the park, amble through the rose gardens, maybe play a game of catch or Frisbee, then pick a spot on the grass on either side of the border and chow down.

Times have changed. And the picnic, it seems, is over.

The American president has embarked on a trade war with Canada (and much of the rest of the world) and fecklessly insulted the Canadian prime minister, who predictably has responded firmly and frostily, and the border watchdogs have clamped down. While it’s nothing like the situation on the southern border with Mexico, where the U.S. administration has separated thousands of immigrant children from their families and continues to insist that a wall be built across the entire border, it is beyond worrisome: It threatens one of the great political and cultural alliances between nations in modern times.

When Roman was stopped she was processed for “expedited removal” and hauled off more than 120 miles south to ICE’s Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, where she languished in a bureaucratic hell zone until June 5, when she was finally released again into Canadian authority. At that, she was lucky. Detainees along the Mexican border can be imprisoned for months or even longer, and families can be separated permanently.

As frustrating and alarming as the current situation is, and as deeply as I regret the fraying relationship between the two nations I know best, I’m also not terribly surprised. The seeds of this schism were beginning to show in the middle and late 1960s, the last time the United States veered so closely into authoritarian waters, when I was in college in Bellingham. It was in the years when the Vietnam War was ramping up, and the beatnik movement was morphing into the hippie movement, and J. Edgar Hoover was still lording it over the FBI, and LBJ was neck deep in the Big Muddy, and Richard Nixon had a secret plan to end the war, and the think tankers of the nation’s capital were pushing us deeper and deeper into a senseless and destructive conflict, and Canadians, for the most part, refused to go along. The United States government can have a long and resentful memory, and factions of it no doubt have been suspicious of Canada ever since it went all dovey on the coalition.

It’s also true that the rogue aspects we see unleashed now in ICE and the Border Patrol were evident a half-century ago, when for many young Americans crossing the border became a physically dangerous act. There were then, and no doubt are now, many decent and honorable members of the Patrol. And borders need checks. No border is completely free; countries inevitably have their own interests. But it was also evident that the service attracted a type: power-hungry, bullying, autocratic, aggressive bordering on sadistic. I saw it myself, being hassled by border agents many times and detained for short periods for no reason other than that they could get away with it. And over and over the stories came back as young women, in particular, traveled across the border. They had no trouble getting through Canadian customs. Coming home was a far different story. Lines would back up for hours. And young women would be hauled off for private friskings, by male U.S. agents, who sometimes made them strip and searched their orifices. After all, they were hippie chicks: They must have something stuffed somewhere. With little choice, the women put up with the humiliation. But they did not forget. And the government made enemies of its own people. (Another friend told of hitchhiking in the American Deep South, being picked up by sheriff’s deputies, taken to a jail cell and raped, then being dumped at the county line and told if she ever showed up again she should fear for her life. The violence and anger we see now in America has long and deep and very personal roots.)

Canada is not a perfect country. No nation is. It has deep environmental problems, and a harsh history with its indigenous people that mirrors our own, and its own cultural prejudices. But when you grow up along a border you begin to understand how artificial and arbitrary the thing is, and also how creative a mix of cultures can be. I remember staying with an otherwise lovely host couple at a B&B in Stratford, Ontario, years ago whose detestation of Québeçois rivaled anything I’ve heard from white Southerners about African Americans. I also remember getting off a cross-country train from Vancouver to Montreal and falling in with a group of McGill University students who invited me to stay in their house for a week. It wasn’t until the third day that I realized their first language was French, and they’d been speaking English because they knew I wouldn’t be able to understand them otherwise. It’s that sort of everyday generosity, a national trait that seems common and rarely remarked upon, that gives a culture strength and honor. The United States offends such a people at its own peril. We’ve entered a period when giving offense is our position of choice, a point of pride, like Chihuahuas yapping at each others’ heels. Such attitudes have real consequences. It’s easy to blame Donald Trump for this, and in many ways utterly justified. But he can’t lead where we as a nation are unwilling to go. He’s tapped into the worst of our natural instincts, and given permission to the takers and users to indulge themselves. ICE, ICE, baby. Power is as power does. And the world turns away.

We’ve done too much damage to ourselves. It’ll be a long slow journey back to decency, let alone leadership. I’d like to think one good place to start is in the middle of the Peace Arch, one foot on one side of the line, one foot on the other. Friends first. Allies after. Independent, but together. Apologies, as to the Iroquois, for a flawed history we mean to overcome. The arch was built almost a century ago, in 1921. Surely it, like the Statue of Liberty, still means something other than an ironic joke. We’d better hope so, and work to make it so. If not, hope fades. We’ll all be joggers, accidentally violating arbitrary lines. And we’ll have built our own cells for a long and deep detention.






  • Wally Oyen

    Well said, Bob! We share many of those memories of the ’60s and I made many trips into Canada over the following decades where I was always welcomed and always had some amount of hassle coming home.

  • David