One of the most striking things separating the United States and Canada is the line that divides the United States from Canada. While oceans, lakes, rivers, drainage basins, deserts, mountain ranges, and valleys dictate the size and shape of many nations, the pin-straight border running from Lake of the Woods to the Pacific Ocean is nothing if not completely and utterly arbitrary.
The western half of the world’s longest land border was laid down in three stages: In 1783, an understandably cocksure Benjamin Franklin won British acceptance of a border extending from the “northwesternmost point” of Lake of the Woods to the Boundary Waters laid out in the Treaty of Paris, the denouement of the United States’ fight for independence. This border would have made much more sense if the source of the Mississippi River had been where both parties suspected, but then it was a botanist, not a professional cartographer, who had created the map negotiators were working from.
In the aftermath of the second, wholly less conclusive war with Britain (the War of 1812), the forty-ninth parallel was established in the Anglo-American Convention of 1818 as the border between Lake of the Woods and the Stony [Rocky] Mountains. In this agreement, the point identified by Franklin was linked to the slightly more southerly forty-ninth parallel by a north-south line that would later form the boundary between present-day Manitoba and Ontario.
A generation later, a potential third conflict with a Britain approaching the zenith of her imperial might was a risk US president James Polk was keen to avoid. Despite having run on an expansionist platform, and with hawks in his own party screaming “Fifty-four Forty or Fight!” (the slogan of an initiative to push US territory north to the Russian colony of Alaska), Polk compromised, and the forty-ninth parallel boundary was extended beyond the Rockies to the Strait of Georgia. The Oregon Treaty in 1846, then, seemed to be the last significant amendment to the matter of the US-Canada border — until “Grumpy” Gary Dietzler had his revolutionary idea in the spring of 1997.
Dietzler, sixty-seven, is one of about a hundred year-round residents of the Northwest Angle and Islands, a 302-square-kilometre US exclave unwittingly created by the comically unwieldy Article II of the 1818 treaty. Some years later, when a survey team led by English Canadian explorer David Thompson eventually located Franklin’s northwesternmost point of the lake and surveyed the fix specified in the new document, it was found to intersect other bays of the lake, cutting off a Malta-sized chunk of US territory. The anomaly is easily found on a map: simply follow the forty-ninth parallel from west to east, and you’ll see a small upward jut, “the chimney of Minnesota,” just before the border begins to wobble off its 2,300-kilometre perpendicular course.
With Ontario to the north, Manitoba to the west, and open water to the south and east, the Angle enjoys the distinction of being the northernmost point of the contiguous forty-eight states, the only part of the continental US north of the forty-ninth parallel, and one of only four non-island locations in the lower forty-eight not directly connected by land within the country. But the Angle’s superb walleye fishing, rather than its curious location, is what sustains the local economy. It was an enduring threat to this livelihood from Ontario that spurred Dietzler and a small handful of others to explore the idea of seceding from the Union and joining Canada. The notion quickly grew beyond fanciful bar talk, and within a few months it was introduced as a bill in the US House of Representatives, supposedly prompting a miffed Bill Clinton to place an urgent call to Jean Chrétien.
Let’s ruminate upon this milieu for a moment. What could be more panic inducing to the American psyche than a group of rugged, tenacious, individualistic US citizens opting out of the dream in favour of Canada? In 1997, it might have seemed too ludicrous a proposition for many Americans to ponder, but what about now? Not only is the United States a more bilious, ailing, and fractious place than it was thirteen years ago; but in 2010, Canada consistently bests its neighbour on almost every metric pertaining to quality of life. The American wont, of course, is to compare our two countries with a more fiscal eye, but even there Canada has largely cast off its hard-won image as the habitual underperformer.
You’ll excuse me for unabashedly singing Canada’s praises. I do realize it’s considered unspeakably gauche around here, but I’m a recent émigré, and as such possess a bullish, patriotic zeal that has lingered on beyond the hoopla of the Winter Olympics. I also feel that in some way I’m a physical embodiment of the mother country and her North American offspring: Born and raised in England, I’m the grandson of a World War II vet from rural Nova Scotia who saw bloody action across Europe. After graduating from a London university, I lived in the United States for a decade before following a woman to British Columbia and marrying her. Now, sitting at my desk in Vancouver, I can clearly see the snowy peak of Mount Baker in Washington state, and am compelled to think about life on either side of this blatantly synthetic line. Visiting the Northwest Angle, then, seemed like an opportunity to meet with an entire community mulling over the very same thing. Is there a point, after all, where pragmatism trumps patriotism? My aim was to gain a better sense of where that point might lie by pitching Canada as the better place.
To access this american outpost by land from the rest of Minnesota, one must cross the border into Manitoba, drive through the hamlet of Sprague, and continue along several kilometres of unpaved roads before re-entering the United States at the Northwest Angle. There, arrivals are required to check into a booth at “Jim’s Corner” and report to US Customs via videophone. Before leaving the Northwest Angle by road, one must report to a Canadian customs officer stationed in the same retrofitted porta-potty. In addition to laminated signs explaining the peculiar protocol for phoning in declarations, the booth’s walls are plastered with posters advertising various items for sale and upcoming community events, which imparts a quaint, welcoming feel.
I’d made arrangements to stay at Jake’s Northwest Angle, a resort run by the Colson family, whose forebears arrived here in 1917. Paul Colson, now forty, was one of the would-be revolutionaries, along with Dietzler, but it was Paul’s wife, Karen, a native of Dauphin, Manitoba, who showed me to my cabin when I arrived, just after sunset.
“Our kids have dual citizenship,” she said after I expressed my interest in the township’s previous flirtation with Canada. “I have a green card but am in no hurry to naturalize at this point. It would require me to make an oath renouncing any allegiance to Canada, and I don’t wanna do that. But you never know what’s going to be around the corner, so Paul and I wanted to give our children as many options as possible.”
Shooing away several large white-tailed deer from around the deck, Karen gave me a quick tour of my cabin. It’s a homey, cozy sort of place where the Bibles left by the Gideons aren’t tucked away in the nightstands’ drawers but left on top of them, opened: Galatians in one bedroom, Acts in the other. “Oh, it’s a thing my mother-in-law used to do,” said Karen when I asked her how deliberately the passages were chosen. “Now the cleaning lady does it.”
When I asked about the events leading up to the proposed secession, she smiled and recommended that I speak with her husband about it, as he’d been more intimately involved with the process.
I’d already read that the pretense for the secession attempt was the so-called Walleye Wars that had been raging between Minnesota and Ontario in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Ontario had begun imposing fees, quotas, and bother on Americans fishing in Canadian waters, and incentivizing walleye enthusiasts to stay at nearby Canadian resorts, where they could legally keep more of their day’s catch. This not-so-neighbourly conduct is wrapped in an apocryphal tale about an Ontario official, Guy Winterton, getting splashed by a Minnesota motorboat and vowing (with shaking fist, one assumes) to drive the Americans off this mostly Canadian lake. Ontarians dismiss this story as fantasy, of course, maintaining that the conservation of their fish stocks, not vengeance, was the impetus behind toughening their laws.
Whatever the underlying reason, the new Canadian laws had a devastating effect on Angle Inlet. Despite attempts to sell the experience of walleye fishing and not just how many fish one could fit in a cooler, resort occupancy dropped off and everyone in town felt the pain. Angle fishing guides and business owners cried foul, but their efforts to lobby Congress were largely ignored.
Then, in the early spring of 1998, Collin Peterson, the representative from Minnesota’s Seventh District, surprised Congress by proposing a constitutional amendment that would allow Angle residents to vote on seceding from the United States and joining Manitoba. Ostensibly, this was to save the livelihoods of his constituents, who, had the proposal passed, would have ceased to be his constituents and would have become, well, Canadians.
The two questions that had perplexed me since I first heard about the revolt were what had motivated Peterson to introduce a bill that his political adversaries would surely frame as treasonous; and why the secessionist fervour in the Northwest Angle had been quelled while reactionary movements like the Tea Party had rapidly gathered momentum in the rest of the country. I put in a call to Peterson’s office.
The following sunny fall morning, I drove along one of the gravel roads that make up the town’s thoroughfares and past a featureless nine-hole golf course, before arriving at the Angle Inlet post office. It’s definitely the most northerly post office in the contiguous United States and, at about thirty metres square, possibly the most twee. “Postmaster” almost sounds like too grand a title for the woman seated in the poky wooden box, but that’s been Judy Risser’s gig for the five years since she took over from her husband, George. She was happy to answer questions about the idiosyncrasies of living in a place where anything from visiting a doctor to buying fabric softener involves crossing an international border four times, but she giggled and smiled coquettishly when I inquired about the citizens’ uprising.
“Well, I’m not the best person to talk to about that,” she said before furnishing me with several phone numbers for town residents who could better enlighten me about the episode. At the top of the short list were Gary Dietzler and Paul Colson. The other names and numbers she gave me were for other people I might find interesting to talk with — people like Deputy Bob Nunn, the exclave’s one-man police force; and Linda Kastl, the long-serving teacher at Angle Inlet’s one-room schoolhouse.
The only tantalizing insight Risser gave me into the prevailing feeling here in the late ’90s was that the vast majority of residents favoured the proposed draconian action, and were prepared to take their righteous belligerence to the limit.
On my drive over to Jerry’s, the only eatery in daily operation during the Angle’s October low season, I looked for residual signs of anti-government feeling but only found Old Glory in abundance. And yet this wasn’t the United States as I knew it. Jian Ghomeshi’s soothing tones were coming in crystal clear on the radio, and a sign in Jerry’s parking lot heralded the recent arrival of Labatt Blue.
The lakeshore restaurant was practically empty. The waitress looked bored, and the titular Jerry sat at the bar, his red-rimmed eyes glued to the Fox News channel. I offered to buy breakfast for the only other diner in the place if she’d be willing to chat with me.
Blond, lithe new mother Jenny McKeever is from Utica, New York. While visiting her parents, who had retired to Angle Inlet, she met and married Brian McKeever. The McKeevers own and operate Young’s Bay Resort and have lived in the Northwest Angle for several generations.
“I think all that was pretty much just a political ploy,” she said about the separatist movement, between forkfuls of hash browns. “I mean, I wasn’t here when it all happened but, y’know, from what I’ve heard. At least, I think it was. You’d have to check. You ought to talk to Gary.”
I stepped outside to the pay phone (cellular reception is scant out here) and left a message on Dietzler’s machine. He was clearly the one I needed to contact for some comprehensive answers.
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