Calais, St. Stephen united by culture, families

Posted April 05, 2010, at 9:18 p.m.

ST. STEPHEN, New Brunswick — Dan McVay’s mother lives in Calais, Maine.

McVay himself lives and operates a barbershop in St. Stephen.

But a quick stop at the U.S. Customs Ferry Point border crossing is no more than an inconvenience for him.

“Because my mother lives there, I haven’t cut back on my visits to Maine,” he said.

Les Losier, also of St. Stephen, agreed.

“I have a sister in Gardiner [Maine], and any of us with relatives in Maine will go there anyway,” he said, referring to the U.S. side’s more stringent border crossing requirements of recent years.

Many residents on both sides of the border at eastern Maine don’t really see the areas as two countries. They feel joined by culture, economy and family.

“We often think of the border as simply a toll station,” said Caroline McVay, Dan McVay’s wife.

In fact, the two cities share an International Festival and cross-border cultural events, and their fire departments race across the bridge to provide mutual aid.

Calais City Manager Diane Barnes said recently that the two city councils are meeting this month to begin a series of talks about additional ways to help each other and possibly share resources and ideas.

“We really work closely together,” she said.

When asked by Homeland Security agents at the Ferry Point crossing why he is coming to the U.S., Dan McVay simply says, “I’m going uptown,” meaning Calais.

Having the Canadian and U.S. dollars on par recently really helps, said Caroline McVay. “I shop [in Calais] as well,” she said.

Cruise through Calais’ shopping area parking lots in such stores as Wal-Mart and Marden’s, and cars with New Brunswick plates are sometimes seen to be in the majority.

“We are really one community with shared family and businesses in both,” Jeff McShane of St. Stephen said. “Seventy-five percent of Canadians already have a passport, so crossing over is not an issue with us.”

Although Canadians are taxed by their government for new items they bring back, Caroline McVay said, the price of some items makes it worthwhile. Milk, at about $3 in Calais, is about $7 a gallon in New Brunswick, she said.

“I’ve been buying gas in Calais since it was 23 cents a gallon,” Losier added.

On Tuesdays, known locally as Cheap Gas Day, the U.S. stations in Calais drop their gas by a nickel a gallon.

“I can save $10 on a fill-up,” Losier said. “That sure makes up for any difference in the value of the dollar.”

But there are some other major differences, such as the smuggling of beer purchased in the U.S. across the border into Canada.

“A suitcase of beer in Calais is $22,” Dan McVay said, “but it’s $42 here.”

On the other hand, Calais residents often smuggle a particularly delectable brand of bologna across the border.

“They just put it in their pockets,” McVay said with a laugh.

Canadian passports also cost more. “Our passport is $130 and must be renewed every five years,” McVay said.

Passports cost U.S. citizens $100 and are renewed every 10 years, and passcards cost $45.

Another difference is the value of purchases that can be brought across the border.

“U.S. travelers can bring $200 worth of goods back into the U.S.,” McVay said. “Canadians can only bring $19 worth back.”

Because costs to ship purchases outside the U.S. are higher through U.S. vendors, St. Stephen folks who buy products online often have their parcels shipped to a Calais address. They pay a small holding fee — $2 to $3 — and avoid the international shipping costs.

But evidence that the St. Croix River, which divides St. Stephen and Calais, is being watched by U.S. Homeland Security is readily apparent, reinforcing that the river separates two countries.

“Try going on the river in a kayak,” McVay said. “[Homeland Security agents] are hiding in the bushes, watching you, and there are sensors on tripods all along the riverbank. We often seen helicopters flying up and down the river. This really just started in the last few years, since 9-11.”

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