Border stories: A Quebec/Vermont community divided by 9/11

Stanstead, Que., lies directly across the Canada/U.S. border from Derby Line, Vt. For generations, the communities were like one, big, open space. Now reminders of the border are everywhere, and life has changed.

Stanstead, Que., is a community literally divided by the Canada/U.S. border. Its public library, the Haskell Free Library, sits directly on the border and is shared by residents of both countries. Canusa Avenue, which runs east-west, is actually split by the border, with one half in Quebec and the other in Vermont.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, the border seemed almost incidental, according to some local residents. Today, it's impossible to ignore.

"When I was a kid, it was like one big, open space," said Kim Prangley, 51, who was born near, and raised in, Stanstead. "It was never terribly obvious where one country or community began and the other one stopped."

"Certainly, after Sept. 11 it's become quite a different place."

"In the last two years, they've made it more visible, that it's a border," said Gordon Douglas, the owner of Gates and Railing Design, of Stanstead.

Many of the changes are physical. Large steel and granite gates, for example, now stand on either side of Phelps/Ball and Lee Streets, which for years just looked like ordinary streets even though the border runs through them.

"There's one street, well, several streets, actually, where the border is right there, and people on one side are looking at the other people in a completely different country," said Prangley.

The culture of the town of 3,000 residents has also changed.

"Before 9/11, you knew the customs officers, both sides of the line, and they were usually local," said Douglas, 54.

Since 9/11, however, border guards who were once part of the community have been replaced by recruits from out of town, Douglas and Prangley said.

"They understood what the impact of that border had on our daily lives," Prangley said. "And that made much more sense," Prangley said.

In the past, trips across the border to neighbouring Derby Line were greeted with a nod and a wave. These days, longtime locals are scrutinized about their citizenship and intended itineraries, Prangley said, causing backups and bewilderment.

New regulations implemented by the U.S. in June 2009 meant neighbours on either side of the border — in some cases, members of the same family — needed passports or other secure documents like NEXUS cards to visit each other.

Even going to the Haskell library has become more difficult. Built in 1901 as a gift to what was then Rock Island (now Stanstead) and Derby Line, its only door is in the U.S. Its website reminds visitors that the border that runs right through it "is real and it is enforced."

"For me, what this community has symbolized has so completely become tarnished," said Prangley, who worked at the library for 24 years.

"I don't feel like we have one community here anymore. And it hurts. It really hurts."

(Photos submitted by Kim Prangley)