A CHANGING WORLD

I first heard about ‘the World’s longest undefended international border,’ between Canada and the USA when doing my RAF aircrew training in Canada during the 1939/45 war. Evidence of a certain pride was perceived in the Canadians or Americans who spoke to us about this border. It was over 3,000 miles in length and seemed to epitomise the trust and good relationship existing between these two English speaking countries and, as far as any of them knew, it was unique.

It certainly was. The first time I crossed this border was on a steam train in the company of my fellow RAF cadets, travelling from New York, where we had recently dis-embarked from our troop-ship, the S.S. Queen Elizabeth and were now on our way to the dispersal camp at Moncton in New Brunswick. It was an 800 mile journey and most of us were unaware of any border as the crossing was in the early hours of the morning and we were deep in slumber.

Later we were to cross it frequently – from Windsor to Detroit- from Niagara to Buffalo – from Quebec Province to New York State and formalities at these crossings were either cursory or non-existent. The transits were very relaxed at all times. At one of our training camps some of us, when flying, would stray from Canadian air-space over to the American side. We were told that when this happened a scolding but jocular American official would telephone our Commanding Officer and request him to ‘keep your boys over on your side.’ We were welcomed in at ground level but infringement of American air-space was not encouraged.

Since those epic days of the 1940’s I was not to return to North America for more than a quarter of a century. It was in 1968 and on business for my company, Chrysler in Detroit. Here, I resolved one day to see how Windsor in Canada was faring. In the New Yorker model car I had been provided with I drove unhindered through the tunnel from Detroit. I believe thousands of workers from both sides did this journey on a daily basis and it was no big deal.

Windsor was looking quite seedy as there was some sort of recession in that area at the time but I loaded up with presents and souvenirs to take back with me before returning across the Ambassador Bridge over the St Clair river. Un-expectantly, an American policeman waved me to stop. He asked me a few questions. ‘Where’re you going?’ Name of the Plant where I was based. ‘Where’re you from?’ ‘Brazil.’ ‘You Brazilian?’ ‘No, British.’ ‘Do you have anything in the car?’ Forgetting my recent purchases, ‘No, nothing.’ ‘Well, have a good day,’ and he released me.

Fast forward nearly a third of a century. In 1999 Ursula and I were visiting my cousin, David, in Vancouver. We were out sight-seeing one day and, on the spur of the moment, he said, ‘there’s a nice place over the border in the State of Washington to have lunch; shall we try it?’ Neither Ursula nor I had our passports with us but David waved this aside as presenting no problem. ‘I took a British visitor over a few months back – there are no difficulties.’

Dubiously, we consented and he drove to the nearest border crossing where, with an airy wave of his hand at the female guard – ‘these are my relatives from England.’ No cheery response here in the guard’s set face. ‘Just draw over there.’ We were grilled and told to turn back to Canada if we didn’t have passports. A few days earlier a group of boat-people from South-East Asia had landed clandestinely in Canada and crossed over to the American side with no difficulties. Following a media uproar, new orders had been received from Washington and the 3,000 miles of open border snapped shut, never to return to its once easy-going and trusting symbolism.

JANUARY 2010