Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Huge gap of security measures implemented from Northern Border to the Southern Border. Ironically only one bush or two bushes separating both borders between Canada and U.S.
Waiting for clearance on the U.S.-Canadian border
Getting to the Whitlash Port of Entry involves a 40-mile drive down a dirt road that never seems to end. One hill climbs into another, and there’s the elephant in the car you can’t ignore.
That elephant, of sorts, is the public relations officer for the Havre sector of the U.S. Border Patrol, the guy doing the driving. He’s a former Marine and was kind enough to haul us around, though he won’t reveal the details surrounding the operations going on up here.
Security reasons, he says.
We’re the media and he’s the government. There’s a natural distrust between the two of us and it keeps us talking all the way to Whitlash. By the time we get there, I think he’s on our side, at least in the way of the public’s right to know what its government is doing.
Less than three minutes after we pull up to the Whitlash station, a man with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection comes out, fidgeting nervously. He’s overwhelmed with the paperwork passed down to him by headquarters over in Sweetgrass, and his computer keeps crashing.
Besides, he said, he didn’t know we were coming and that could be a problem. He needs to make some phone calls. He needs to get clearance. What did we want, anyway? His time? He doesn’t have it to give.
Our guide grins and says he’ll figure this out. He follows the Customs officer back into the station and returns moments later.
“This is the deal,” begins our guide. He says we can’t take pictures of the officers or the buildings until the boss in Sweetgrass grants permission.
“I’ve already taken pictures of the building,” photographer George Lane grumbles.
This is where the awkward silence sets in. Our guide asks that we not run the pictures we’ve already taken until we get clearance. I imagine confiscated film, but this is the wrong country for that. The photographer replies that we don’t need clearance, anyway, because he took the photos from a public road.
“And it’s a public building,” he shrugs.
The silence grows thicker. We’ve reached an impasse on the Montana prairie, waiting for a phone call from Sweetgrass that may or may not come.
There’s nothing in any direction. Whitlash is like an outpost on Tatooine, and I can feel the camera watching — the little white box mounted atop a wooden telephone pole.
The day before, we had toured the Sweetgrass Port of Entry 40 miles west. There, I had seen the control room with the television screens — the real-time video that helps the officers there keep on eye on things here.
The Canadian flag flaps in the wind beyond the camera and the sign that says “You are now leaving the United States.” The signs beyond that are in French and the words seem unnecessarily long.
“Hey, George,” I say. “What do you say we walk over there and say hello to the Canadians?”
“Can’t hurt,” George says.
Down in New Mexico with the Montana National Guard in April, I found, there was no way to jump the fence and chat with the Mexicans. But here on the 49th parallel, you can walk down a dirt road and shake a Canadian’s hand, so long as the U.S. Customs officers are willing to let you back into the country once you leave.
“Got your ID?” George asks.
“Yeah. Got yours? Good. Let’s go see.”
This is no-man’s land. The distance between the U.S. port and the Canadian post is about 100 yards. There’s a bush or two between them and a small white car parked on the Canadian side. The door to the Canadian post is unlocked. The place looks empty inside.
The lone Canadian customs officer sits at a desk around the corner, smoking a cigarette. He looks like Santiago from the Old Man and the Sea with his long gray beard and white hair. The patch on the man’s arm says “l’Agence des services frontaliers du Canada.”
“Ello,” he says, but he doesn’t get up. “Star Wars” plays on the television. A cat sleeps in a box on the counter and the crumbs of catnip are scattered nearby.
Compared to the frenzy across the border at the American post, this place is downright relaxed. The officer is friendly, cracking jokes, real mellow. He lives in a cabin behind the port, out here in the middle of nowhere.
“You’ve got to be something of a recluse to do it, eh,” he says, grinning.
It’s easy to make generalizations at moments like this — how the Canadians are relaxed and the Americans are stressed. The Canadians are friendly with the world. The Americans are at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, arming Israel, disarming North Korea, siding with the Sunnis to suppress al Qaeda, and pondering a move into Pakistan.
Sure, the Canadian border isn’t exactly open, but it’s not Fort Knox, either. The Canadian agents didn’t even carry guns until recently. Really, it’s hard to hate a country that gave us the McKenzie Brothers and sayings like, “Take off, you hoser.”
Anyway, we’ve had our fun with the Canadian and he with us. It’s time to see if the boss over in Sweetgrass has given the U.S. Customs officer permission to speak with us.
“Got your ID?” asks George.
“Yep. Let’s go see if they’ll let us back in.”