The morning of Sept. 12, 2001, I drove from Fredericton, New Brunswick, to Houlton, Maine. I crossed the oldest section of the Canada-U.S. border, first agreed to in 1783. There are more crossings between Maine and New Brunswick than any other state-province pairing, which speaks to connections between communities that existed long before the line was drawn.
I was in Houlton to interview New Brunswickers who crossed the border every day, particularly Canadian nurses who commuted for better-paying positions at the local hospital. Everyone was apprehensive about the looming security crackdown.
It was an elderly patient, George Solesky, who proved most prescient. “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.”
In the years that followed, the United States government imposed unprecedented restrictions at the border. The most visible was a passport requirement, even for local residents that Customs officers had known all their lives. No one disputed that America had the right to protect itself. But Washington seemed incapable of understanding that there were ties here that did not deserve, or need, to be broken.
For decades, Nickolaj and Marion Pedersen, a Canadian couple whose driveway led to an American road running along the border, enjoyed a peaceful life. Starting in 2003, postal workers, newspaper deliverers, plumbers, relatives and even their member of Parliament were harassed, detained and prevented from reaching their house. Informal understandings about the border were a thing of the past.
Now Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama are negotiating a perimeter agreement designed to increase security around North America while easing restrictions at the border. But the impetus appears to be financial. The rhetoric is about keeping commerce between the two countries moving.
There is a certain logic to this. Even in a wired world, geography matters.
Two centuries ago, there was a vibrant smuggling trade on Passamaquoddy Bay — an early version of a free-trade zone. New Brunswick’s Confederation debate was hijacked by the push by businessmen for a railway link to Maine. In that push, we see a precursor of the Harper government’s “Atlantic Gateway” initiative, aimed at improving road and shipping links to New England.
Even former New Brunswick premier Shawn Graham’s controversial attempt to sell the province’s power utility to Hydro-Quebec was about the border: Quebec wanted New Brunswick’s transmission grid connection to Maine, which would have given it a lock on electricity exports to New England.
But trade, though vital, is only one part of the story. Border people want to maintain their cross-border connections to relatives and friends without overwhelming, government-imposed security measures.
In 2010, in the tiny community of Forest City, Maine, residents decided to push back against the national-security state. Bureaucrats in Washington decided Forest City, population 15, where about six cars per day cross the tiny bridge over the St. Croix River, needed a $15 million border station, complete with a four-lane approach road and inspection bays for transport trucks. All that was required was the expropriation of one resident’s yard.
The people of Forest City understood the need for border security, but they weren’t prepared to give Washington a blank check.
They lobbied their congressmen. They forced bureaucrats to come see the community for themselves. Fox News framed the story not as a national-security issue, but as a case of rampant, big-government spending. Washington surrendered, and this spring officials returned with a scaled-back proposal for a modest new border station at one-third the price and with no expropriation required.
In one corner of Fortress America, a measure of sanity had returned to the border debate.
Mr. Harper and Mr. Obama would do well to remember Forest City. If their treaty speeds commerce but fails to address the challenges of ordinary citizens living along the border — the people who maintain our special relationship day after day — it will be, at best, a half-solution.
Jacques Poitras is a political reporter in Fredericton, New Brunswick. He is the author of “Imaginary Line: Life on an Unfinished Border,” the story of the international boundary between Maine and New Brunswick, to be published this month by Goose Lane Editions.