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Feature - Border Crossing

Security woes on world’s longest undefended border



Labour Day weekend in Canada and the U.S. is the last gasp of summer and the last chance to get away for many as a new school year begins.

It’s always a busy weekend for guards on both sides of the border, which stretches an incredible 6,416 kilometres between our two countries – not including the vast Alaskan frontier. Between St. Stephen in New Brunswick and the Peace Arch in British Columbia there are a total of 21 border crossings.

Crossing the border on Labour Day used to be a simple matter of showing your driver’s license and answering a few questions, if you were pulled over at all. Border guards were looking for drugs, illegal immigrants and customs cheats who didn’t pay their duties.

All of that changed forever on Sept. 11. We woke up to find the World Trade Centers gone, the Pentagon in flames, and another plane crashed in Pennsylvania because the passengers decided it was better to fight than to sit idly and allow their plane to be used as a missile against their fellow citizens.

We learned in the most tragic way that terrorists and their supporters lived among us, travelling unchallenged between cities and countries while setting their deadly plots into motion.

Both the American and Canadian governments vowed to never let our guards down again, and the first order of business was to increase security at the airports, ports and border. Increased security meant longer waits at the border.

The longest wait in Canada on this most recent Labour Day long weekend was at the Peace Arch crossing, where cars waited approximately 45 minutes between six and seven o’clock in the evening to get into Canada. On Sunday evening they waited up to an hour to get back into the U.S.

While that may seem like a long delay, it’s a drop in the bucket compared with line-ups experienced in the weeks after Sept. 11. Governments had promised more money and resources for customs services, but until the money came through and staff were hired and trained, the increased vigilance was in the hands of the same numbers of frontline border personnel.

Every traveller was asked to produce photo identification and proof of citizenship. They wanted to know where cars were going, where the people were staying and for how long. They opened every trunk and checked luggage.

As a result of this unprecedented scrutiny, both private and commercial traffic backed up on both sides of the border.

On the American Thanksgiving 10 weeks after Sept. 11 – opening day for Whistler-Blackcomb – skier numbers on the mountain were actually up 10 per cent over the previous season. Businesses that were expecting a decline as a result of the terrorist attacks, the collapse of Canada 3000, airline cutbacks, and the rapidly weakening economy let out a collective sigh of relief. After all that had happened, it seems people were still determined to come to Whistler.