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Canadians have been celebrating a lot this year. It’s not that we need an excuse to celebrate, but this year is special. “What are we celebrating? “ you might ask. Well, we are celebrating the very fact that we are Canadian! Some might say we are celebrating that we are not American. Yes, 200 years ago The War of 1812 sorted out who was who. Just this past weekend my home town had a huge re-enactment.

Every One Participates at The Battle of Queenston Heights Re-enactment Photo by Robin Biggar Argenta

Every One Participates at The Battle of Queenston Heights Re-enactment
Photo by Robin Biggar Argenta

A Colourful Day at The Battle of Queenston Heights Re-enactment Photo by Robin Biggar Argenta

A Colourful Day at The Battle of Queenston Heights Re-enactment
Photo by Robin Biggar Argenta

One of the other things the War of 1812 created was the Canada/United States border – the longest undefended border in the world. In many ways this border bonds us together far more than it separates us.

Canada Us Pipeline Border

Canada/United States Border – It looks a little different than this today.
Credit: National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque / Library and Archives Canada

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve crossed this border. I was born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario. There are four bridges that cross over the Niagara River linking our two countries – The Peace Bridge, The Rainbow Bridge, The Whirlpool (Lower) Bridge and the Queenston/Lewiston Bridge. I’m a “border kid”. This means I have spent my entire life crossing the border to the US, back and forth. Border kids have the distinction of being dragged half-naked “over the river” by their mothers since birth, then returning home wearing so many clothes we could play Ralphie’s little brother Randy in A Christmas Story. He was the kid who couldn’t put his arms down or get up when he fell, because his mom had him dressed like the Michelin Man. Yes, we were born and raised smugglers!

A Christmas Story

Do not fall down when dressed like this!

By the time I was in high school I was a pro. No, NOT a professional smuggler! But, by then it was second nature to cross over to the US on my own. I didn’t drive. I walked. In fact, it was a favourite activity for kids my age to skip school and take off over the river. They had really cool stores and the chances of getting caught by our parents were pretty much slim to none. We were always polite and never lied to the border guards, (Our parents were another story.) After all, the border guards had no sense of humour and carried guns. On one particular excursion we walked across the bridge, arm and arm and singing, “We’re off to see the wizard …” We were asked to stop singing but they let us continue into the US.

The Yellow Brick Road

Me (2nd from the left) and my buddies headed “Over the River”

On our way back to Canada, when they asked if we had anything to declare, I held my bag up and said, “just this pot”. We were immediately surrounded and I was relieved of my purchase. It was a little ceramic pot I had bought for 50¢ at a thrift store and still have to this day. I’m not sure who was more embarrassed, the Border Patrol or me.

My Wee Pot

My wee pot – 40 years later.

As a young adult, going over the river was a must. In the 70’s, the drinking age was 21 in Ontario and the bars closed at midnight or 1:00 am. Over the river, the drinking age was 18 and the bars were open until 2:00 am in one county and 4:00 am in another just minutes away. At some point the rules changed. Now, the drinking age in Ontario is 19 and the drinking age over the river is 21 – so the drinking crossovers have changed direction.

RAINBOW BRIDGE

Yes, it is that close

There was also a time when I had a business In Niagara Falls, New York and crossed back and forth over the border every day. In the summer the lineups on the bridge could be brutal and it was difficult to keep to a schedule. So, I hooked a crate to the back of my bicycle, loaded it with my briefcase, purse and heels, and rode to and from work every day. One day, one of the Customs Officials shared a story with me (one I am sure is an urban legend).

There was this fellow who crossed the bridge each day on a bicycle. He made the trip every day for many, many years. All the Customs Officials were sure he was smuggling something but never found anything on him. The man grew old and it came time for him to retire. He told the Customs Officials it was his last day, said good-bye and wished them well. One of the officials asked, “Please tell us before you go? “You’re free and clear now. “We’ve always suspected that you were smuggling something. “What was it?”

The man smiled and simply stated, “the bicycles.”

The Border

Almost there

We shared a piece of history that brought us together for a while. For 79 days during the 444 days of the Iran Hostage Crisis, former Canadian Ambassador, Ken Taylor and other Canadian Embassy staff, hid, protected and arranged for the escape of five Americans who had escaped from their Embassy when it was overrun. (President Reagan’s account of what happened.)
When it was finally made known to the public that the Americans were safely out of the country and that the Canadians were responsible, there appeared on the front page of our local paper a picture looking out across the Niagara Gorge to the escarpment on the other side. There was a giant banner hanging on the American side that was big enough you could read it while standing in Canada. It simply said, “THANK YOU CANADA”. I will never forget that sight. It could be because it appeared over night, or just knowing the manpower it would have taken to do such a thing. Or, could it be that it was the last time I remember an American saying “thank you”?

Thank You Canada

It was like this only really, really, really big

There was a Canadian movie made in 1981 about this called Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper starring our very own Gordon Pinsent.
You won’t remember it. I’m sure it never even played in the US. You may, however, be aware of a little film called Argo that’s making the rounds right now. This version of the story, directed by Ben Affleck, stars Affleck and is a dramatization of the joint CIA-Canadian secret operation. Of course the emphasis is on the CIA’s part in it. I suppose we should be grateful that Canadians were even acknowledged.

Argo

The big attraction for people visiting Niagara Falls is, of course, the Falls. There are actually two sets of falls. The Canadian falls are called the Horseshoe Falls and are conveniently located in all their splendor to be enjoyed by anyone who comes to Niagara Falls, Ontario.

Canadian Horseshoe Falls

Canadian Horseshoe Falls

The American falls are called the American Falls (clever). Right beside it is a smaller waterfall called the Bridal Veil Falls. Both of these are also conveniently located in all their glory to be enjoyed by anyone who comes to Niagara Falls, Ontario. That’s right! You have to leave Niagara Falls, New York and cross over to Niagara Falls, Ontario to see the American Falls. I think this is where someone says “location, location, location”.

American Falls

American Falls & Bridal Veil Falls
(Maybe I should have stopped my car to take this one)

I still head over the river on a regular basis, even though these days I live much further away. No, there is no smuggling involved. You can’t live that close to the border and not have someone in the family marry the opposition. Now my sister lives there, my niece lives there and my grandniece lives there. That little girl is worth a trip over the river .

My Grandniece, Ellee

My Grandniece, Ellee

-30-

Silk Purse Productions

This post was originally written for a social experiment called “Canadica” and posted on October 23, 2012.  Canadica was the brainchild of Rebecca Donahue and was created as a joint project between Canadian and American writers. We had a lot of fun poking fun at each other. As you know I love our American neighbours very much, especially my American friends and family. Yes, that even means my brother-in-law, Bruce, who is a great source of amusement for me and helped me remember the drinking bits.  I have written other pieces for various blogs and recently discovered that some of those were lost because the owner of the site closed it down. This particular post was the first time (and so far…only time) I was “Freshly Pressed” so I did not want to risk losing it.

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Perhaps, I have mentioned this a time or two but, for those who are new here, I’m a “border kid”, born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario.  The only thing separating us from Niagara Falls, New York was a river and a few bridges.  There was a time when going from one Niagara to the other wasn’t given a second thought. It was equal to walking around the corner to a friend’s house.  Things change and now you had better be ready to invest a a fairly hefty piece of time just waiting in line to cross that bridge never mind contemplating what might happen when it is “your turn” to face the border agents.  As I said, that is now.

Then, things were different. We came and went freely. Parents were never concerned if their children walked across to another country just to hang out downtown.  Can you imagine? I said “ANOTHER COUNTRY”!  It never felt like that. We all had friends on both sides. We all had relatives on both sides.  We studied the same things in school. OK, we were led to believe we studied the same things in school.  The reality was quite different.  Once a Canadian child was of certain age you started to ask questions.  Most families took turns hosting Holiday dinners. If we spent Christmas at Aunt Maude’s in Buffalo then we would spend Easter at our home in Niagara Falls.  The Fourth of July was always spent in the US.  Dominion Day (now Canada Day) was always spent in Canada.  One Holiday was always a great source of confusion, Thanksgiving Day.

Turkey

Pretty standard Thanksgiving artwork done by kids on both sides of the border…except I just made this one this afternoon…not when I was five.

We celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October. Our American friends celebrate on the fourth Thursday of November.  Granted it made the who ate where part easy to figure out but we had questions.  We all learned about Thanksgiving in school. You know, the Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock, Natives, corn, turkey dinner…wait a minute.

corn

Random shot of corn just because I like it. There was no corn.

Right about now is when you start to realize things may not be the same in the classroom on both sides of the border.  As a Canadian child I was taught a great deal of American history. In fact, I would venture to say that the influence of American History was quite heavy in my classroom.  With family on both sides of the border it is easy to compare notes and find that Americans know very little about Canadian History.  Canadian TV Producers have actually made extremely amusing programming asking Americans to answer questions about Canada.  Funny? Yes, but, also a little sad, don’t you think?

The History section on The Weather Network explains it the simplest:

The history of Thanksgiving in Canada goes back to an English explorer, Martin Frobisher, who had been futilely attempting to find a northern passage to the Orient. He did, however, establish a settlement in Canada. In the year 1578, Frobisher held a formal ceremony in what is now the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, to give thanks for surviving the long journey. This event is widely considered to be the first Canadian Thanksgiving, and the first official Thanksgiving to occur in North America.

The reality is that Canadians celebrated Thanksgiving 43 years before the Pilgrims reached Plymouth. There wasn’t even turkey served. The first Thanksgiving meal was salt beef, crackers and mushy peas. It was all they had. I will give thanks that the Americans changed the menu, although I can think of some turkeys who wouldn’t.

Cousin Susie with turkey

Cousin Susie with “Betty”, who will never be Thanksgiving dinner.

Last year folks on both sides of the border celebrated and continue to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the “War of 1812“.   Yes, we have spent a couple of years celebrating us becoming not American.  I am not sure why the Americans were celebrating. Oh, that’s right, they still think they won that one (according to my much beloved American brother-in-law).  Here Laura Secord is considered a hero. In the US…not so much.  There are a lot of discrepancies when it comes to Canadian/American history most recently would be Ben Affleck’s depiction of what happened during the Iran Hostage Crisis. I prefer President Reagan’s account.

We will probably always have these inconsistencies in our history together.  We will probably always disagree on how to spell color/colour.  We will bang our heads together trying to figure out how many kilometers per hour is equal to how many miles per hour so we don’t get a speeding ticket in either country.

400000

I am celebrating my Canadian Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October but on the fourth Thursday in November  I will also give thanks for all my American friends and family.

Happy Thanksgiving

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Grand Is booths 2These days we are consumed with catching H1N1 and various other contagions. I would like to share with you some joy I caught recently.

I was born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario. I’m a “border kid”. This means I have spent my entire life crossing the border to the US, back and forth, paying tolls on the US highways. Border kids have spent their entire lives with their mothers dragging them to the US half nakrandy_card-christmas-storyed and returning home with so many clothes on we resembled the little boy in A Christmas Story who couldn’t put his arms down, or get up when he fell because his mom had him dressed like the Michelin Man. Yes, we were born and raised smugglers!

I still travel to the US on a regular basis. No, of course I would never smuggle! My sister lives there, my niece lives there and believe it or not I get my hair done there. I have been crossing the Grand Island bridge for as long as I can remember. Paying the toll and getting to the other side. Seldom have I ever heard a peep from anyone taking my $1.00 US. I make it a point to always say “hello” wait for a response and then say “thank you” when they raise the barrier. (I know, it is just bred into my Canadian genes to be polite.) I don’t believe I can remember a time when anyone even met my eyes. There was one time when I hesitated, ever so slightly, and the guy screamed at me “GO!” My passenger was shocked, and asked, “Did that guy just yell at you?” Yes, yes he did. I have always thought this must be one of the worst jobs in the world. These people must really hate their jobs. When I was little I thought these tiny buildings were where they housed all the unhappy people in the United States of America. I was always concerned that if I complained too much about my layers of clothes I would be put in one of these little houses for punishment.

A few weeks back my lovely niece, Hinda, and I went for a run to the US. I wasn’t really paying attention as I pulled up to the booth entering Grand Island so I was really caught off guard when this great big, shiny grin greeted me with a “Hiiiiyaaaa Baaaaabeeeeee!”. I had no control, I grinned back like an idiot in shock. My niece looked a little like a deer caught in headlights and she had a big grin on her face as well. I greeted this friendly woman, and thanked her. “You both have a wonderful day now,” she said as she raised the gate. I hesitantly moved on. I said hesitantly, because I did not want to leave this wonderful woman that could spread such joy. Hinda, who is not a border kid but her mother is, exclaimed “Wow”, and asked if that had ever happened before. Honestly, never! Absolutely never! We had caught it, though. The joy had entered my little Honda Civic and it stayed all day. We laughed, smiled and talked about that lady all day. We told my other niece and my sister. We told pretty much anyone who would listen. For a few days I thought of that woman who obviously loved her job, loved her life, loved people and was just full of joy.

Weeks went by, I crossed the bridge several times…same old, same old. I forgot about my person of “joy”.
This past Monday, my husband and I ventured that way, as we approached the toll I realized I had never told him about the “Joy” lady and started to as he pulled up to the booth, and this face came in the window with a big grin and said, “Hiiiiyaaaa Baaaaabeeeeee!”. He grinned. I grinned. I leaned forward and waved, she leaned forward and waved, and gave me another “Hiiiiyaaaa Baaaaabeeeeee!” My husband pulled away. He said, “Do you know her?”, I said, “no, but doesn’t she make you feel like you are old friends she hasn’t seen in awhile?” We grinned and giggled the rest of the night about it. I phoned Hinda, and told her we had just encountered the “Joy” lady, and she started laughing and talking about her, too.

Other than calling her the “Joy” lady, I have no idea who this woman is. In my opinion she is the best asset the Grand Island Bridge Authority has and she should probably be training all their employees. I will look for her every time I cross that bridge, and next time I will stop long enough to thank her for spreading the “joy”.

-30-

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