In the Shadow of the Border
L'long pi l'court
(The long and short of it)
When Don Levesque joined the U.S. Army, he was asked how many times he'd been to a foreign country. "Hundreds," he wrote on the form. Soon after, he was pulled aside and interrogated. Why, suspicious officers demanded to know, did he travel out of the country so often? He shrugged. "Where I live, it's like crossing the street."
Levesque tells this story from the back porch of the St. John Valley Times, whose offices sit above the fast-moving St. John River in Madawaska, the most northeastern corner of the United States.Across the half-mile-wide river, wrapped in lush green fields and mountains, is the Canadian province of New Brunswick. Later on this warm, humid June day, the newspaper publisher will be on the riverbank representing Levesques from both sides of the border at a reenactment of the landing of Acadian pioneers who settled "the Valley" in 1785. At day's end, he'll drive downtown, a gauntlet of fluttering blue, white, and red flags for the annual Acadian Festival, and turn left onto a steel two-lane bridge. On the opposite riverbank, a Canadian customs agent will ask, "Do you have anything?" Levesque will answer, "No," and he'll be waved on, through the city of Edmundston to his home in Saint-Basile. "I grew up in Grand Isle, went to high school in Van Buren, college in Fort Kent, and now I live in Saint-Basile," Levesque says. "Oh yeah, I'm a St. John Valley guy."
The 20,000 people who live along the south shore of the St. John from Van Buren to St. Francis will tell you that the international border is all but invisible. Predominantly Franco-Americans, they often find more in common with the French-speaking folks "across" than they do with the rest of Maine. In Madawaska, the region's heart, nearly everyone traces his roots to the original settlers who built their homes on both sides of the St. John, long before it was used to divide the Valley into the United States and Canada. "We're not American, and we're not Canadian," offers Jean Cayer, who operates River Watch, Madawaska's only bed-and-breakfast, out of her modest ranch-style home. "We're Acadian."
That's true as far as it goes. Reality is more complex. For generations Madawaskans have voted in U.S. presidential elections, served in the military, and attended schools that teach from a distinctly American perspective. They are proud of their citizenship, but it has cost their culture dearly. Take Don Levesque, whose delightful weekly column, Mon 5?, switches back and forth from English to French, mirroring the conversations heard on Madawaska's streets. Colorful Valley French is unlike French spoken anywhere else, and Levesque's spelling of it is playfully inventive because he, like most natives, didn't learn to read or write in his first language (indeed, schoolchildren were punished if caught speaking French). Levesque's Canadian-American daughters, on the other hand, go to school in Saint-Basile, just seven miles from their dad's boyhood hometown in Maine. Their classes are in French. Many of their friends don't speak English at all. "It's all one community," observes Levesque of the towns straddling the border, "but the language is killing us."
Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ignore
(The heart has a mind of its own; literally, "the heart has its reasons that reason ignores")
Part of Aroostook County, the St. John Valley's tidy hamlets and farms are separated by wide open rolling hills planted in potatoes and buckwheat. Amid this pastoral beauty sits Madawaska, population 4,534, a flinty mill town whose largest employer, Canadian-owned Fraser Paper, hulks alongside the narrow international bridge in the center of town. Here paper is made from pulp piped across the St. John from Fraser's Edmundston plant.
More than two hours from the terminus of Route I-95 in Houlton, Madawaska is often described as isolated and remote. True again, as far as it goes. The four-lane Trans-Canada Highway (Route 2) is just minutes away in Edmundston, making Madawaska an excellent jumping off point for explorations of Quebec and New Brunswick. Madawaskans have taken to calling Route 2 "the Irving shortcut" (after the Canadian oil company) because they can trim nearly half an hour off a 240-mile trip to Bangor by zipping down the Trans-Canada to Woodstock and crossing back into the United States at Houlton.
"For a person like me who has grown up along the border, we don't even see it," says Géraldine Chassé, rocking in the living room of her house on the fertile flats of the St. John. "With all these attempts to control traffic between the two countries, we just kind of laugh. There's trouble on the southwestern border with Mexico, and [the government] assumes we have the same problem, which isn't true. They're trying to treat everybody with a one-size-fits-all."
More than fifty years ago, Chassé's curiosity about the large white cross at the far end of the potato field behind her house turned her into a historian and guardian of Acadian culture. The cross marks the landing site of the Valley's first Acadian settlers, whose parents had fled to Quebec to escape deportation from Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island — their Acadie — by the British in the mid-eighteenth century. (Louisiana's Cajuns were deportees.) The landing is reenacted every June to kick off the Acadian Festival and Family Reunion that Chassé helped found.
"Before the Webster-Ashburton Treaty decided the boundary in 1842, we used to go back and forth," the retired schoolteacher says. "Our ancestors intermarried. There was no American. There was no Canadian. It was just Acadian or Valley people. The St. John River was just another body of water, but our governments decided, 'You're going to be an American' and 'You're going to be British.' You can't change the culture of a person! It's in their bones. It's in their spirit." With two Canadian grandfathers, Chassé says, "I'm typical of the people here who consider themselves American. Our ties to Canada are so close. It takes more than one generation to separate those ties."
Among those ties is faith. Beautiful Catholic churches rise above the Valley's humble yet proudly maintained homes. Crosses and Virgin Mary statues are liberally displayed on lawns, doorsteps, even parking lots, but nowhere is faith's strength more apparent than at Mizpah, a 109-acre sanctuary for the ill and grieving carved into the emerald hills of Grand Isle. Mizpah is the vision of Madawaska's Dick Corbin, who was told at age twenty-two that his cancer would kill him within three months. "I decided to make a promise with the guy upstairs that if I would hang around, I would build a small place where people could come and find peace," says Corbin, now sixty-two.
Fifteen years ago, Corbin set out to keep his promise. Unbidden, friends and strangers pitched in. They built a tiny chapel by the pond. They cut a Stations of the Cross trail through a shaded thicket. One man donated lumber for two small cabins, where visitors may spend the night, free of charge. Another man worked all summer to embed a large white rock cross in a hillside. Every week, volunteers cut the grass, a forty-hour task. In the eight years since Mizpah opened, thousands of worshippers have filled the chapel's altar with cards memorializing deceased loved ones. They've left rosaries, statues of Jesus and Mary, hundreds of religious artifacts. Nothing has ever been stolen or damaged.
Nearly all of Mizpah's visitors, including the priest who says Mass in French once a month, are Canadian. They learned of the sanctuary at Edmundston Hospital, where Corbin was treated and now volunteers. "It's amazing," he says in accented English. "People just keep coming forward."
Y peut pas s'passer une vesse que tout l'mond l'save
(Life in a small town; literally, "a fart doesn't go by that everyone knows about it")
Two thousand cars, mostly local traffic, cross the Madawaska-Edmundston international bridge every day. Historian and genealogist Guy Dubay is usually driving one of them. Edmundston, with five times Madawaska's population and considerably more polish, has things he needs, like military, property, and birth records, as well as a few things he wants, like a doughnut shop. Canadian customs agents usually ask just one question — do you have anything? — but trainees go by the book: Where are you from? What is the purpose of your trip? Are you carrying any firearms? "I tell them they've got Tim Hortons and we don't. They've got a university library and we don't. I say, 'Hey, I'm coming because you have such a beautiful park.' " Often Dubay and a Canadian agent exchange pleasantries as they jog past one another in Petit-Témis-Interprovincial Linear Park, which follows the St. John and Madawaska rivers all the way into Quebec. "It's still serious business," he says of crossings. "You don't fool around. But you can be a little more casual when there's familiarity."
Routine as it is, the border fills day-to-day life with quirks. The Acadian Quilters sew together regularly in Madawaska, sharing advice and gossip in French and English. Their charitable projects include baby coverings — the American-made quilts go to Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent and Canadian-made quilts to Edmundston Hospital. Canadian farmers, meanwhile, can sell their excess potatoes in Maine, but provincial trade tariffs prevent Madawaska farmer Roger Lavertu from selling his products up north. Lavertu does, however, grow his potatoes for the Easton, Maine, processing plant of Canadian-owned McCain. An international workforce cuts them into French fries for McDonald's restaurants in Canada.
More idiosyncrasies: Madawaska's filling stations are frequented by cars bearing New Brunswick plates because gas is considerably cheaper south of the border, as are milk and cigarettes. On the other hand, for more than a decade Madawaskans enjoyed an extremely favorable exchange rate when they shopped across the river. "And they don't charge us tax," says Mimi Epstein, who cooks breakfasts at Jean Cayer's B-and-B. "If you spend more than fifty dollars, you fill out a form, and you get a check." Epstein favors the poutines — French fries mixed with cheese and gravy — at Edmundston's Bel-Air restaurant. "They use those good Canadian cheese curds," she explains. "You can't use that mozzarella like they do over here. That stuff melts and stretches for a mile."
There is a Rite Aid in downtown Madawaska, but Valerie Thibeault Dufour "goes across" to buy her family's prescription medicines. "You have a savings of twenty to thirty dollars," the videographer says. "Why there is such a difference is beyond me." Like many Madawaskans, Dufour's three adult children have dual citizenship because they were born at Edmundston Hospital. Having married an Edmundston native, she, too, successfully applied for dual citizenship. Her husband, meanwhile, recently changed careers from insurance agent to customs agent — for the United States.
Fewer Madawaska children are born in Edmundston these days, due to insurance and Medicaid regulations. Likewise, Madawaska patients are no longer admitted to Edmundston Hospital, even though it is the closest emergency facility. Instead, they are stabilized and sent on to Northern Maine Medical Center, twenty miles away in Fort Kent. "Customs will flag our ambulances through and on the way back we give them the patient's name and information," Fire Chief Norman Cyr says. "Once they are stabilized, we go back and pick them up."
Cachez'es beaux, v'la's'anglais
(Unwelcome visitors; literally, "hide the oxen, here come the English")
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, not a week has gone by that Judy Paradis hasn't fielded a call about a citizenship or immigration issue. Paradis, a former state senator, is chairman of the Aroostook County Democrats, which has a storefront on Main Street. She is there every day. When the legislature is not in session, her husband, State Representative Rosaire Paradis, is there, too. A charming blend of feistiness and warmth, they are like the mother and father of the Valley. People constantly drop in to chat; some need their help. "The quality of the culture of the area is people only ask when they absolutely have to," Paradis says. "When they come to you they are up against a wall. The border is our biggest headache."
It used to be that Maine residents' Canadian spouses could apply for citizenship and visas in Madawaska, but now, as part of the Department of Homeland Security, the border station is strictly a customs and law enforcement entity. The nearest U.S. Immigration and Citizenship office is in Portland, six hours away. "The visa wait is so long and so expensive and so onerous and so distant," Paradis says. "They're putting people at risk on the highways in the middle of winter. They have to pay for all that gas and for motels. We have experts here who were trained to do this stuff and who are still getting the pay grade to do this stuff — that, to me, is the most egregious offense." The bureaucratic hoops only seem to be increasing. By 2008, all Americans will be required to show passports when they reenter the United States from Canada. "It's idiotic," says Don Levesque, the newspaper publisher. "The people who are going to pay for it are ordinary people. The terrorists are going to have an easier time getting passports than I am. It's just going to be an encumbrance." The Paradises are studying whether the new rules violate the Webster-Ashburton Treaty because they impede family visits.
(To darn, to sew)
At the same time the border is threatening to widen the divide between Valley communities, efforts to mend the cultural rift it represents continue. Madawaska's Acadian Festival, with a huge family reunion as its theme, plays a role. Last year's family, the Dionnes, came from Quebec, New Brunswick, Louisiana, and beyond to meet one another over chicken stew and ployes (flatbreads made from the light buckwheat flour grown only in the Valley). "The goal is to bring people together," says Nancy Dionne Lavertu, who organized the reunion. "It's to remember our culture and history and ancestry, especially for this next generation."
Lavertu's five children are all bilingual, thanks to a French immersion program in the Madawaska public schools. "My daughter's class visited a school in Quebec on a language exchange program," Lavertu says. "They're pushing English and we're pushing French. Everyone is realizing the value of having two languages."
Sheila Jans, who lives on Main Street not far from the international bridge, hopes the people of the Valley will embrace the St. John as the connector their ancestors knew. "There is a push and pull that people have with the river," she says. "It's an innocent, beautiful land form that we're not celebrating very much."
That is about to change. Jans has just completed the St. John Valley International Cultural Trail, which stretches from Allagash, Maine, to Grand Falls, New Brunswick, forming a figure eight as it uses border crossings at Fort Kent, Madawaska, and Van Buren. A project of the Maine Acadian Heritage Council and the Quebec-Labrador Foundation, the trail incorporates museums, artists' studios, farms, vistas, and Acadian, Quebecois, and Maliseet Indian music and stories. "The cultural trail is an American project, an American perspective, but we can't tell the story without the Canadian side," Jans says. "There are a lot of projects on the Canadian side that are exclusively Canadian; they don't involve the American side. This is the first, and we're very proud of that."
Today 95 percent of New Brunswick's Valley residents call French their first language, and English is the first language of 90 percent of Maine's Valley residents. "There's a real palpable sense of loss," Jans found as she researched and planned the route. "The border has done a brilliant job of dividing people. Before 1842, it's a shared story. Then we went our separate ways. It was revealed to me how much the American side feels connected to Canada. Many feel very much that that's also their country. The Canadian side evolved very differently, and they don't feel that same sense of immediacy to experience the American side, but they have a heart connection."
Many Canadians told her they won't cross the border because they fear violent crime or disagree with Bush Administration policies. Americans are hesitant to cross because they worry their French, if they speak it at all, is inferior. "What came through is an urgency on the American side to address this slow erosion of tradition, the loss of the French language," Jans says. "We felt we really have to do something to increase the awareness of culture in our everyday lives."
There is one final twist. Sheila Jans, who has come to care deeply for a uniquely American Acadian community, is Canadian.
Phonetically spelled Valley French expressions are from "Le Parler de Chez Nous" by Don Levesque (St. John Valley Times, 1999).