So long, Canada

Strict new border policies are turning Canada into a foreign country. Is this any way to treat our neighbors?

Published May 1, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

It was a snowy March night in Windsor, Ont. On the stage of Jason's Executive Lounge, the French Canadian stripper seemed to be asking herself, "Why did I bother to undress?" A royal-blue robe draped over her forearms as she danced to the low-volume disco bip-bip-bipping out of the nightclub's heavy-duty speakers. A muted floodlight cast a pale glow on her bare belly. Three men sat alone at their tables, sipping cranberry-juice cocktails and bottles of Labatt's Blue. The dancer's eyes wandered toward the door. She'd come all the way from Montreal and gotten naked for this?

It wasn't a wild night at Jason's, the club that had founded the "Windsor Ballet," the string of nudie bars whose hormonal scent once lured carloads of American men across the Detroit River to indulge in un-American activities. The drinking age in Ontario is 19. You can buy Cuban cigars at Fidel's Havana Lounge, a once busy tavern-humidor. Even prostitution is legal in the privacy of your own motel room.

"It used to be everybody went back and forth," reminisced Brad McLellan, manager of Jason's Executive Lounge. "It was, 'Where you going? Have a good time.' Then the U.S. side started tightening up after 9/11."

Five years ago, Jason's canceled its lunch specials, long popular with Detroiters off the domestic leash during business hours. Border inspections caused such long backups that customers couldn't get back to the office on time. Now the nightclub has a new headache -- the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), a law that's bringing the phrase "May I see your papers?" to America's frontiers.

In January, the Department of Homeland Security began demanding proof of citizenship -- such as a birth certificate -- of everyone who enters the United States by land. Starting in June 2009, the rules will be even stricter: a passport or similar federally approved document.

Already, Windsor has lost half its American business -- visits dropped from 7.5 million in 1999 to 3.76 million in 2004 -- and McLellan expects to lose even more. "I think the Americans will probably stop coming because it's a hassle to them unless they have a cottage [in Canada]," McLellan said. "A lot of Canadians will stop going over, too. When you get four people who want to go to a Red Wings game, and two of them have a passport, and two don't, they're going to stick together."

McLellan said some of his customers think they need a passport already. Casino Windsor is reaching out to confused Americans with a radio spot that ends, "No passport needed until June 2009."

If the tighter border were just an inconvenience for strip-club patrons, sports fans and gamblers, its effect on international relations might be no big deal. But it's disrupting everyday life in Ameri-Canadian communities, where residents have always thought of themselves as neighbors, not foreigners. The Champlain, N.Y., fire department has a mutual-aid pact with a nearby town in Quebec. Last year, the Canadians were late for a blaze because Homeland Security stopped a truck to inspect the crew's papers.

Automakers that shuttle parts between plants in the United States and Canada now stockpile them in warehouses because truck inspection times have tripled since 2000. The delays cost $11.5 billion a year, according to a report by the Brookings Institution. Indian tribes are outraged about the prospect of having to carry passports to visit relatives and sacred sites across the border that divides their traditional lands. In January, trips from the United States to Canada hit their lowest mark since record-keeping began in 1972.

It's more difficult to measure the impact on American business because our weak dollar makes the border hassle worthwhile for many Canadian shoppers. Canadian visits are up 10 percent since last year, but an official with the Binational Tourism Alliance says that "15 years ago, when the exchange rate was last where it is, the numbers were three times what they are now." Overall, between 1995 and 2005, annual crossings from Canada dropped by half. Perhaps the stay-at-homes include a gentleman I met in Kingston, Ont., who told me he never goes to the states because "I don't want Uncle George looking up my butt."

In her day job as New York's junior senator, Hillary Clinton has pleaded with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to cancel the passport regulations, fearing they'll damage upstate New York's already sickly economy. "I've been a leader on the WHTI issue," Clinton told Salon during a campaign stop earlier this year. "I have been opposed to what they've been trying to do. It'll interfere with recreation and tourism. I've spoken to Secretary Chertoff opposing the regulations requiring passports at the northern and southern border."

The new rules aren't just aimed at preventing another 9/11. They're also part of a crackdown on illegal immigration. But Canadians are not swimming across Lake Erie to escape socialized medicine and sane mortgage-lending laws. According to a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson, the "vast majority" of people lying about their citizenship are trying to cross the southern border. And yet, the DHS is applying the same rules to the Canadian border as it is to the Mexican border, despite our vastly different relationships with the two countries.

"The U.S. government has been insulting in the way it's handled the border without consulting the Canadians," says Andrew Rudnick, executive director of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, a business association of U.S. and Canadian companies. "They've been insensitive to life here."

More and more, the strict new border rules appear to be a huge cultural and economic mistake. As the United States walls itself off against illegal immigration and terrorism, the relationship between Americans and Canadians will be a casualty.

The United States and Canada share the longest undefended frontier in the world -- 5,500 miles. We are closer, in our habits, speech and folkways than any other neighboring nations on earth. Go into a tavern on either side of the border and you're likely to find Molson in the fridge, hockey on TV, and a jukebox well stocked with Kid Rock and Rush. The real cultural dividing line on this continent is not the Canadian border, but the Ohio River. America's Northern states would fit more amicably into a union with Ontario and Nova Scotia than the one with Arizona and Texas.

A study by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that "the views of Americans who live in the northern border states are much closer to values held by Canadians than are the values of Americans living in the U.S. South." A merchant sailor who shuttles regularly between Michigan and Ontario once observed, "The language is the same. It's the same people. I don't know why there's a border. It's just a nuisance."

I've spent a lot of time in the borderlands over the past few years, and most of the people I've met say the crossing is becoming even more of a nuisance.

Thirty miles southeast of Windsor, along the Lake Erie shore, the farmland is flat, humid and fruitful, producing vines of deeply colored tomatoes and bushels of soft plums. The roadsides are crowded with tin-roofed produce stands flying American and Canadian flags. This is where I first met Carl Mastronardi, a farmer as Americanized as anyone else north of the border. He sold me a carton of blueberries and talked about how his life encompasses both countries.

Mastronardi is Italian, first of all, so he's more verbose than most of his countrymen. "You can't tell by listening to me that I'm Canadian," he bragged. And, he's a Detroiter. As a young man, he crossed the border to see Tigers baseball games and meet girls. His wife is from Michigan, which means he now needs documentation to visit his mother-in-law.

It took 9/11 to remind Mastronardi that he was marooned across the border from the city that provided him with his living, his family and his identity. In the weeks after the attacks, trucks were backed up 20 miles, waiting to cross into the states. When I talked to him again, after WHTI went into effect, he moaned that it was dividing two economies that should be drawing closer.

"It's terrible for trade," he said. "NAFTA was supposed to be so we were all strong -- 450 million of us to compete with those guys in Europe. If you go to Europe, it's wide open. The borders here are not open, but were getting that way. If 9/11 hadn't happened, it would have been laxer. Seventy-five percent of the time, when I took a bus to see the Tigers, we just breezed through. Now, they stop the bus and board it."

Like many other Canadians, Mastronardi finds the restrictions insulting. Proudly multicultural, Canada is scrupulous about minority rights. To American border hawks, that makes it a haven for radical Muslims. In February, Chertoff told the New York Daily News that "more than a dozen" potential terrorists have tried to infiltrate the United States from Canada. According to a DHS report, Canada harbors "known terrorist affiliate and extremist groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria."

Mastronardi scoffed at the idea that the Canada was a haven for radical Muslims. "You've got eight million Muslims. We've got, what, 800,000?"

This February, I made a trip around the Golden Horseshoe, a cultural and economic region that encompasses the western bell-end of Lake Ontario, from Toronto to Rochester, N.Y. The two sides of the Niagara River have been getting along splendidly ever since the War of 1812 ended. Ontario has the wineries, the Shaw Festival, and the best view of Niagara Falls. New York has the Walden Galleria. The Buffalo Sabres depend on Canadian hockey fans; the Bills are so popular in Canada that they'll be playing games in Toronto next year. Canadians also cross the border to ski in western New York and fly out of Buffalo-Niagara International Airport.

At Fort Erie Race Track & Slots in Ontario, a popular destination for Americans, Sue, a gambler from Buffalo, was lingering by the slots. "I just carry my birth certificate," she said. "I got asked coming across. It's a lot harder going back. They'll look in your luggage. I saw a group of 80-year-olds, and they had their bags open. It's not like they're al-Qaida."

I have a passport, but I wanted to test American border security, so when I reached the customs booth, after idling in traffic for 15 minutes, I stuck my driver's license out the window. "Is this all you have to cross the border?" the agent demanded. Busted. "I have a passport," I admitted. "Next time, bring your passport," he ordered, assuming I'd left it at home. He handed me a brochure with a list of acceptable I.D.s and let me back into my native land.

For now, as the new policy is being phased in, the border patrol is issuing warnings. Nonetheless, there is "tremendous confusion" over what's needed to cross the border, says Buffalo business leader Rudnick. One reason: DHS originally announced it would ask for passports starting Jan. 1, 2008. The State Department couldn't handle the onslaught of applications, so Congress forced a postponement. In a letter signed by 32 members of the Congressional Northern Border Caucus, New York Rep. Louise Slaughter wrote that "DHS has not met its obligation to inform travelers regarding the new documentation requirements, leading to confusion, adding to delays, and hampering the cross border activity that is so important to our economy."

Down the river from Buffalo is Niagara Falls, Ont. It's the original tourist trap, although with American visits to Canada down 14 percent in the past year, it's not trapping as many as it once did. As early as the 1850s, the falls were a come-on for sleazy midways of tattoo artists and fortune tellers. Today, the tackiness is carried on by Louis Tussaud's Waxworks, whose Arnold Schwarzenegger statue captures every bronzed wrinkle in the California governor's Naugahyde face.

After the wax museum, I checked into the Sheraton, which has a view of the horseshoe falls. "We shouldn't have to carry a passport to go over there," the concierge sputtered. "We have a sisterhood. If I have to carry a passport, I'm not going."

Before leaving the Niagara region, I called Dick Hirsch, a public relations man who's lived in Buffalo all his life, and asked whether the stricter border had changed his habits. "Years ago, when I had clients fly to Buffalo, we would drive over to Canada, go to a Chinese restaurant, have lunch and be back in an hour or so," Hirsch said. "They were impressed with that. I am currently hooked on some cookies sold in Canada. When I exhausted my supply, I would drive over to Fort Erie. Not anymore. I now have a cookie connection, a guy who lives in Canada but works out in the gym I use."

Maybe that's not $11.5 billion in lost trade. But it's one more American who no longer goes to Canada.

Rivers don't divide people. They unite people. Imagine that Washington, D.C., and Arlington, Va., were in separate countries, and you'll have an idea of what life is like in the Twin Soos -- Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., and Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., identically named cities on either side of the St. Marys River.

Canadians cross the river for gasoline, Americans for Italian restaurants and movies. Anyone who went to high school in the 1960s knew a young man who dodged the draft by cab. Lake Superior State University is in Michigan but has so many Canadian students it's won three NCAA hockey titles.

I visited the Soo three years ago. Even then, the border was a serious issue. The DHS would have been a source of derision, with its fleet of Turtle-waxed SUVs and its speedboats churning the river, if it hadn't make a quick run to Canada such a pain in the ass. "They're not fighting terrorism," griped the wife of a Canadian tour boat captain whose business was suffering. "They're fighting tourism."

Canadians think the United States has gone all Rambo since 9/11. I found that out on the International Bridge Walk, which starts at Lake Superior State and ends across the river. One morning, I fell in step with David Orazietti, the local member of the Provincial Parliament. Orazietti's uncle had been captain of the first Lake Superior State hockey team. As a boy, his Pee-Wee hockey squad played in Michigan. So he was worried that a Fortress America would estrange the Soos. The new border-control measures mean that Americans are practically being told to stay home, he said.

At the Canadian end of the bridge, we walked through the border booths, no questions asked. A welcoming committee garlanded us with maple-leaf flags.

This summer, bridge walkers will have to bring birth certificates to celebrate the closeness between the United States and Canada. Next year, passports or the equivalent. It doesn't make sense to Leisa Mansfield, director of the Sault Chamber of Commerce.

"When you think that the 9/11 attackers were here legally, I doubt a passport is going to protect us against terrorist threats," she said.

There's a third nation in the Soo: the Chippewa Indians. They were living on both sides of Lake Superior before the United States and Canada divvied it up, and they're used to crossing freely to visit relatives, attend pow-wows, and worship at sacred sites. "In the eyes of our tribes, as far as ancestors and government, the border isn't there," said Cory Wilson, communications director for the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

The Jay Treaty, signed by the United States and Britain in 1794, guarantees Indians free passage across the border, said Heather Dawn Thompson, director of governmental affairs for the National Council of American Indians. But it took a lobbying effort to add tribal I.D. cards to the list of accepted documents. The council is now asking Homeland Security to accept those I.D. cards in lieu of passports next year. Kelly Klundt, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, said the government is working with tribes to develop photo I.D.s that will satisfy the requirements of WHTI.

For the rest of us, Homeland Security will also accept a $45 border-crossing card, or enhanced driver's licenses, with citizenship information encoded on a radio frequency chip that can be read remotely as a traveler approaches a customs booth. Washington, Michigan, Arizona, Texas, Vermont, British Columbia and Ontario are preparing to issue the licenses to drivers who pay an extra fee. Privacy advocates are wary, saying personal information on the licenses can be stolen by anyone with a radio-frequency reader, which is typically used to track packages. Maine and Montana are refusing to produce the licenses, out of opposition to the federal Real I.D. Act, which will require every American to carry electronically readable identification by 2011. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont (who married a granddaughter of French Canadian immigrants and traces his own roots to Quebec), is also skeptical about the driver's licenses, as well as the passport rule.

"There is no indication that they will be ready with the appropriate technology infrastructure at our borders to handle new documents," he said in March. "There is no reason to believe border upgrades will be ready. There is no signal they will reconsider using problematic RFID technology that poses security and privacy concerns. There is no assurance that they will have enough time to hire and train the border agents who will be needed to implement the passport requirement."

Americans and Canadians will never be as neighborly as we were in the 20th century. Well-to-do Yanks will still hike in Banff and weekend in Vancouver. But the spontaneous college road trips from SUNY Plattsburgh to Montreal, or the Pennsylvania family taking a day trip to Niagara Falls -- those won't happen as often. The less we cross the border, the fewer friendships we'll form, the less we'll marry each other, the less we'll work together. "I feel like the U.S. are our cousins, and we've lived through so much in the maturing of the New World," a woman from St. Catharines, Ont., told me. "I hate to see barriers."

One day this past winter, I was in Detroit, and thought of having dinner in Windsor. I wanted to visit an Italian restaurant where, years ago, I had taken a date, and where Harrison Ford ate while filming "Presumed Innocent." Back then, nobody asked me for I.D., coming or going. Driving into California, with its fruit inspection booths, was tougher than visiting Canada. But there wouldn't be a return trip: I realized I didn't have my passport. And I don't even have a copy of my birth certificate. That day, Canada became a foreign country.

By Edward McClelland

Edward McClelland is the author of "Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland." Follow him on Twitter at @tedmcclelland.

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