The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Along northern border, post-9/11 security divides neighbours and complicates daily life

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RICHFORD, Vt. - A restaurant owner in Vermont held a contest to help Canadians buy passports so they cross the border for a meal. A fire department can't depend on help from a few miles away. A short drive to pick up milk can bring unpredictable delays.

A decade after 9/11, tightened security measures have divided communities on the northern border, where for centuries, people crossed back and forth to shop, work or visit relatives. Where the Green Mountains of Vermont begin to give way to the broad plains of Quebec's St. Lawrence valley, residents acknowledge the need for enhanced security, yet many are frustrated. Most agree life will never be as it was, but they're adapting.

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"It used to be real simple. We just went across the border. Sometimes I wouldn't even take my wallet," said Paul Martin, 59, the fire chief in Richford, a Vermont town of about 1,300 near the border.

Now, Martin said, he crosses the border two or three times a week to see his girlfriend in Quebec. He never knows how difficult it will be to come back, an uncertainty that illustrates the disruption of a small-town way of life that had pervaded even across international lines.

"If I get somebody I went to school with, I don't have a problem," he said. "If you get somebody new, they have to inspect everything. It all depends on what kind of a day the inspector is having."

Within weeks of 9/11, the U.S. began increasing border security that, as one official said, hadn't "changed much since the French and Indian War" of the 1750s. National Guard soldiers were helping staff posts and plans were being made to increase the size and technical prowess of the Border Patrol, which has roughly tripled its staffing since. Long backups at the border became common. Once-unguarded roads were blocked. The changes disrupted the way people had always lived.

"We don't have much choice. It's that way or the highway," said Real Pelletier, the mayor of the Quebec town of St. Armand. He visits the United States several times a week, where gasoline is about 40 per cent cheaper.

"The first one or two years (after 9/11) it was really, really bad. It was like we were in a war zone."

The delays have eased some, he said, but people who once crossed between the United States and Canada with only a nod now need expensive passports or other travel documents, such as Vermont's enhanced drivers' licenses or passport cards. Still, they might have to wait or open their trunks.

For the past 25 years, Rosaire St. Pierre has run the restaurant The Crossing in Richford. About half his customers come from Quebec. A few years ago, he held a contest to give away passports that usually cost 90 Canadian dollars so Quebecois would have the documents needed to come to Vermont.

Yet he estimates his business remains down 30 per cent. He's frustrated by what he sees as the unreasonable demands for border-crossing documents and the overzealous nature of the border agents who, he claims, are sometimes rude to his potential customers.

"They don't care about business whatsoever. They think that everybody is a potential bomber," St. Pierre said. "I think that the terrorists are getting us through our pockets."

Concerns about agents being rude to people entering the United States should be reported to their supervisors, said CBP Acting Area Port Director Gregory Starr.

"Our officers take an oath. That pledge conveys great responsibility," he said. "There's a lot of balancing of facilitation and enforcement."

Martin, the Richford fire chief, works closely with his counterparts just across the border. Before 9/11, Canadian firefighters would come to Vermont to help fight fires, big and small, and even staff the Richford fire station when his department was on a call.

His firefighters still cross into Quebec regularly to help fight fires, even smaller calls. Now the Canadians only come to Vermont to help fight big fires, about once a year.

"The Canadians will open it up and ask questions later," Martin said, referring to the border. "The Americans, it all depends on who you get."

Federal officials work continually to ensure that emergency vehicles and people cross the border as quickly as possible, Starr said.

"If there's a serious need for fire trucks, we're not going to stop them and make them wait in line," he said. "Common sense will prevail."

The beefed-up law enforcement presence on the border pays dividends beyond the primary goal of stopping terrorists, officials say. Customs and Border Protection agents will report suspected drunk drivers trying to enter the United States and the extra Border Patrol agents routinely help with local calls, frequently arriving at emergencies before state officers.

The changes also diversify the region largely made up of Yankee and French Canadian farming families and their descendants. One newcomer is Raulan Masada, a Hawaii native who left the islands a decade ago to join the Border Patrol. Now he and his wife are becoming entwined in the social fabric of Vermont raising their three children in St. Albans. He's gotten to know the back roads of northern Vermont and the people are getting to know him.

For some of his neighbours, the increased security is an acceptable adjustment.

East of Richford, the Quebec prep school known as Stanstead College has about 10 students from Vermont who go back and forth twice a day. During swim season, the school sends a busload of students, some of whom come from countries other than Canada, into the United States to swim in a Newport pool.

"I wouldn't say it's hard. It just takes longer," said Stanstead Headmaster Michael Wolfe, whose wife sometimes crosses the border three times a day. "As long as the paper work is in place, I think it's OK."

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