As Canada and the United States continue to refine our joint stewardship of our border in the post-9-11 world, it will help decision makers in both countries if they re-read speeches delivered on the subject on this date in 1938.
Students of Canadian-American relations know that it was on August 18, 1938 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, arguably the greatest U.S. chief executive of the 20th century, visited Canada to accept a degree from a Canadian university.
After leaving Kingston, Ontario, that historic day, he then traveled to the border community of Clayton, N.Y., and officially opened the international bridge that unites our two countries at the world-famous Thousand Islands region.
At crossing between us, FDR spoke of the need for “common sense” to guide both nations as they administer the border. All these years later, any objective analysis reveals there is a real need for Roosevelt-style common sense at our border today.
In the U.S., false myths that 9-11 terrorists entered America from Canada continue to be spread by people who should and do know better; in both nations, zealous border security agents delay and deny entry to citizens who pose no real danger to the national security of either Canada or the United States. As the world economy stands on the brink of further challenges — a period when trade between us is even more vital than ever before — delays are imposed on the flow of goods that only hurt ourselves.
Pleasure fishers seeking sport have even seen their boats confiscated and had uncalled for and unrealistic fines imposed against them by zealous agencies. The list could go on.
This is not the vision of Canadian-America border relations FDR bequeathed us.
In contrast, Roosevelt believed the bridge he opened would serve as a mechanism that would unite, not divide our peoples. He even described citizens of both Canada and America as “bridge builders” during his remarks.
“It has always seemed to me that the best symbol of common sense was a bridge,” he said.
“This bridge stands as an open door,” he continued. “There will be no challenge at the border and no guard to ask a countersign. Where the boundary is crossed the only words must be, ‘Pass friend.’”
This is the spirit that has to guide our respective governments as they work at crafting new border security arrangements. President Roosevelt on August 18, 1938 recalled the relations between Canada and the United States that he had experienced as governor of New York.
“We as good neighbors are true friends, because we maintain our own rights with frankness, because we refuse to accept the twists of secret diplomacy, because we settle our disputes by consultation and because we discuss our common problems in the spirit of the common good,” he said.
In a final piece of advice to his audience at Queen’s in 1938, FDR also recommended that Canadians and Americans: “Cultivate three qualities to keep our foothold in the shifting sands of the present — humility, humanity and humor. I have been thinking in terms of a bridge which is to be dedicated this afternoon, and so I could not help coming to the conclusion that all of these three qualities … build new spans to reestablish free intercourse throughout the world and bring forth an order in which free nations can live in peace.”
Canada and the United States can still be a model for the world in demonstrating how to manage an international border that contributes to peace, prosperity and progress for peoples on both side of the line. The events of August 18, 1938, led by Franklin D. Roosevelt, should be a cause of permanent celebration for our peoples, and this is particularly so as the 75th anniversary of them fast approaches.
Canadians and Americans ignore FDR’s example at our peril.
Michael A. Meighen, is a senator representing St. Mary’s, Ontario, in the Canadian Parliament. He is a Canadian delegate to the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park Commission.