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Imaginary Line: Life On an Unfinished Border

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In advance of the awarding of the annual $25,000 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, tonight at the Politics and the Pen Gala in Ottawa, Huffington Post Canada will be running excerpts from the five finalists. Jacques Poitras' book is about "the first boundary between Canada and the U.S., [which] was drawn between Maine and New Brunswick and it has served as a microcosm for relations between the two nations ever since. For centuries, friends, lovers, and smugglers reached across the line to one another, but now, post 9/11, political and security concerns have begun to isolate friendly neighbours from one another. Colourful community eccentricities -- driveways that straddle an international border -- have been transformed by new restrictions."

FOR A MILE and a half, Russell Road follows the border almost perfectly: the eastern shoulder of the road is in Canada and the western shoulder is in the United States. This did not pose particular challenges to the residents of the road until January of 2003. Marion Pedersen was driving to the large white farmhouse she had shared with her husband Nickolaj for 53 years, the only home on the Canadian side of the road, when she was stopped by the U.S. Border Patrol right in front of her driveway.

"He said, 'I'm going to take you in,'" Marion told me when I interviewed her two months after the incident. "'In where?' I said. And boy, he meant it. He wasn't fooling. And I said, 'Well what's wrong?' He said, 'You jumped the border.' And I said, 'Well, maybe yes, maybe no.' I said. 'If I have, I've done it for 53 years.'"

Marion had come to the house from the north, using the shortest and most convenient route from the nearby New Brunswick village of Perth-Andover, where she'd been running errands. The appearance is of a road that suddenly turns sharply left. At that corner, a large sign warns No entry: United States Border. No Vehicles. No Pedestrians, but there is no US checkpoint.
That day, Marion did what she had been doing since the 1960s, when Washington closed its border post. She made the left turn onto Russell Road, into the United States, and drove south along the border, assuming that when she reached her home, she would turn left again into her driveway, back into Canada, just as she always had. Except this time, the U.S. Border Patrol stopped her right in front of her house.

By the time I visited the Pedersens in March 2003, their newspaper delivery man had been stopped by the Americans. He started leaving the paper with their friends on the Brown Road, forcing Marion to drive a mile every morning to pick it up. A tenant who rented an apartment the Pedersens owned in Perth-Andover had been detained and searched on her way to drop off a rent cheque, and she swore she would never come back. The mail was still getting through, though Marion figured it was only a matter of time before Canada Post gave up too.

John Dolimount, the regional director for Canada Customs, told me in 2003 that he would try to show some flexibility towards people visiting the Pedersens. "Technically they are re-entering Canada illegally if you want to take a broad view of the law," he said. He promised to look at getting special ministerial exemptions for Canadians who had to visit the property regularly. That, of course, would only solve the problem of entering the driveway. The moment someone left the Pedersen driveway, they were subject to arrest. "You know, what U.S. Customs or U.S. border patrol, what they do or don't do is something I can't comment on," Dolimount said.

At the opposite end of Russell Road's mile-and-a-half run along the border, on the American shoulder not far from the corner with Brown Road, is the home of Clarence Clark and his wife, lifelong friends of the Pedersens.

"When they first landed here," he says of the build-up after 9/11, "there was no concept of what they were here for, except to nail everyone. This is not the Mexican border. They're dealing with people, both sides of the border, whose parents probably lived here. They're old farming families who've been here for a hundred years or more."

Marion Pedersen died in January 2004. Her children and her neighbours, including Clarence Clark, were convinced the stress of the security crackdown contributed to her death at the age of 73. And there was one final indignity, Clark told me. Despite his visit to the local Homeland Security supervisor to convince him to keep his officers out of the way, border patrol vehicles followed every car heading to the Pedersen house for the wake.

"They intercepted everyone who came to the border and they followed them down [to the house]," he says. "And how effective is that? Just sticking their goddamned noses in, upsetting the family even more, to accomplish what?"