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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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”?
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.
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.
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”.
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 .
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.