National News

A Border Town Where Petunias, Not Political Tiffs, Split Countries

Posted June 12, 2018 4:01 p.m. EDT

DERBY LINE, Vt. — Parts of the United States border are marked with tall metal fencing. Other stretches are outlined by snaking rivers. Then there is Church Street in this tiny community in northern Vermont, where the Canadian border is delineated with nine pots of pink and purple petunias and a sign ordering people not to cross.

Even the cheerful strip of flowers represents a starker split between the countries than some people in this old border village would prefer.

“We don’t really look at them as Canadian or American,” said Roland Roy, a pharmacist and the chairman of the local board of trustees, whom everyone calls Buzz. “They’re just our neighbors.”

So it has been jarring for the residents of Derby Line to suddenly find their nation at odds with the one on the other side of the flowers. Some residents said they watched with a sense of rising discomfort as a gathering by leaders of the Group of 7 nations over the weekend devolved into open grousing between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada. After Trudeau warned of retaliatory tariffs, Trump used Twitter to call him “very dishonest & weak,” and a Trump adviser suggested there was a “special place in hell” for Trudeau.

It was all too much for Roy, who said he was exasperated by what he had seen, particularly from the American side. “We depend on each other for trade, for security, for everything,” he said, at his meticulously organized pharmacy. “You just don’t treat your friends that way.”

Borders can be places where tension bubbles over and international skirmishes begin. But, at least for now, the tiff between Trump and Trudeau seemed no match for the bond between Derby Line and Stanstead, Quebec. After all, this is a place where the library and theater building was purposely constructed to straddle the border; you can change countries just by walking across the room. The lines, too, are blurred when it comes to the local hockey league, the curling club and even the water and sewer system. Lives are lived across two countries.

That can be odd and bothersome at times, like when border officials insist on checking smelly hockey bags when the car pool comes home from a game played on the other side of the divide.

When security was ramped up after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, crossing the border became more cumbersome. Not far from the line of flowers, there is an official border crossing complete with booths, customs officials and government SUVs. Roy was himself briefly taken into custody several years ago after walking over the border to buy a pizza, and then crossing it twice more to prove a point. The episode yielded the headline “Local Man Jailed For Crossing Street” and led locals to don pins that read “Free Buzzy Roy.”

But added security has by no means stopped the crossover traffic. Canadians come to Vermont to find cheap gas, milk and the closest Walmart. Americans head to Quebec for tasty butter and their preferred ginger ale.

“We’re a natural family,” said Howard Hale, 55, a sales clerk at the gas station near the border crossing. Hale is also a firefighter in Derby Line, which has a mutual aid agreement to help fight fires with towns in Canada. Jean-François Paquette, a Quebecois, pulled up to the gas station bays. He crosses the border once a week, he said, just for gas.

The business is welcome in this region of Vermont, which struggles with high rates of poverty and unemployment compared with the state over all. And all the talk of political tensions, tariffs and a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement is certainly a topic of intense interest and concern.

Tim Shearer, 48, a nurse from Quebec who said he is able to work in Vermont because of NAFTA, wonders how the trade discussions could affect him. “That’s what worries me the most, whether I am going to have job security,” he said. Warm relations are a matter of constant attention. Just this week, Bruce James, who owns a group of radio stations and is the head of the North Country Chamber of Commerce, ordered new signs, in English and French, for the welcome center in a nearby community. (They read “Welcome” and “Bienvenue.”) James said his organization also is planning workshops to teach local workers French phrases.

“They know we don’t have anything against Canadians, that we don’t have any issues, that we don’t want to do anything to upset their apple carts,” James said.

Not far from Derby Line, a street runs along the split. Much of it is part of Canada, but 14 houses on its southern side fall over the border, in the United States. On the northern side of the street, Canadian banners hang from utility poles. Residents of the American homes have to check in with customs officials every time they leave their homes to drive farther into Vermont, which they find frustrating.

The street’s name? Canusa (which is pronounced Can-OO-sa).

Jan Beadle, who lives on the American part of Canusa, said she worries that the volleys between the countries could make things trickier on the border — or could stop Canadians from wanting to come over.

“We kind of depend on each other,” Beadle said, as she stood along Canusa. “If you can’t draw business from the other direction —”

Her neighbor, Louise Boisvert, who also lives in the cluster of American houses, finished the thought: “Your world is cut in half.”