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The U.S. Presidential campaign election year has been a strange one – even by American standards. As we do not wade into politics here, there is no shortage of places for you to go to find news and opinion on that topic.

One of the recurring topics in the campaign has been that of securing the U.S.-Mexican border. Some have quipped that there are more reporters than immigrants to be found along the southern frontier.

The U.S.-Canada border has received fewer headlines and political soundbites.

But we continue to find folks impacted at those points as well.

One such place is the community of Stanstead, Quebec-Derby Line, Vermont.

After 9-11 in our “new normal” of 21st century security there are fences, barricades, check points to protect the peace in this location some 160 kilometeres southeast of Montreal.

But for a long time the towns were founded in the late 1700s, the boundary line was meaningless. Roads crossed the two towns with their own commonsensical logic. 

Legend has it that the surveyors drawing the international border were drunk when mapping out this part of the continent. Others say it was just a silly mistake. Whatever the real story may be, life along this area hasn’t changed much since the early 1700’s, and the villages of Derby Line, Vermont, and Stanstead, Quebec, are still essentially one town.

Houses were built right on top of the boundary — a family might cook dinner in the United States and eat it in Canada. River mills were set up so that they straddled the line, allowing people from both sides to use them. In 1904, in memory of her husband Carlos Haskell, Martha Stewart Haskell built the Haskell Free Library and Opera House on the international boundary so that everyone could use that too. The boundary line runs down the middle of the reading room. An entire tool-and-die factory was established with half the building in Canada and half in the United States. If you’d wanted to give future border security guards nightmares, the whole place could not have been set up any better.

Not surprisingly, the outside world and especially U.S. Department of Homeland Security have made interactions more challenging. The old hello-and-a-wave across the border is long gone. New agents have gradually replaced many of the regulars who had lived here for years and weren’t prepared to treat Jim the plumber or their grade-three teacher as if they were potential terrorists. Now, anyone can be searched or taken aside for secondary questioning — or harassed by armed guys shouting at them out of choppers with bullhorns. The U.S. government has blocked off virtually all of the side roads running across the international boundary line within the twin towns. That really enraged the locals. And the people of Stanstead and Derby Line, many of them dual citizens, resent the new passport requirement. They may just decide to cross the line elsewhere, whenever and wherever they damn well feel like it.

“It’s in stark contrast to the southern [U.S.] border, which has a wall, which has a virtually military checkpoint. … But we use flower pots,” said local hobbyist historian Scott Wheeler. He’s referring to the line of potted plants downtown that actually represent the international boundary between the two nations.

The two towns’ relationship “hasn’t changed much, but it has gone through its roller coaster,” Wheeler said. “It’s a hard pill to swallow that you have to prove who you are to go visit your neighbour across the street.”

More than a decade later, neighbors are still crossing the street to see each other, and for many of the older residents, it’s to the Border Curling Club.

The club was founded more than a century ago by Canadians wanting to teach their American neighbors how to play one of their favorite national pastimes. “It’s a friendly game, eh? But, we win when we play against Americans,” jokes Quebec resident Norman Gilliana.

But she only kids about those differences.

“I think the one thing that makes us special and unique is we don’t think we’re special and unique,” Wheeler said. “We are who we are and we always have been. I think the special and uniqueness is we don’t think we are.”

Content credits for relevant summaries: National Geographic by Derek Lundy, photography by Martin Beaulieu 

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