Monday, 25 April 2016


English Bluff Rd – Google Street View
10 English Bluff Rd. It’s a pretty standard two-storey suburban house on a pretty standard suburban street. The asphalt is in okay condition although is a little pockmarked. Maintenance is probably not high on the agenda, given the little traffic this end of the road receives. On one side, number 10 is bordered by Georgia Wynd, another like suburban street, greenery-lined and rather verdant. But on the other side, there is something that makes number 10 unlike almost any other suburban house in the world. You see even though English Bluff Rd is termed a “road”, it is not actually a thoroughfare.

Number 10 sits at the end of English Bluff Rd, but there is no geological reason that prevents it from continuing on its way to numbers 8, 6, 4 and so on. There is no cliff, no hill, no unfordable raging torrent, no insurmountable topographical feature, just a strip of foot-tall concrete kerbing – painted yellow – and a yellow and black checked diamond sign atop a no parking sign. Next to all this is another small sign:

If you are entering the United States
without presenting yourself to an Immigration Officer,
for violating U.S. Immigration and Customs Laws.

English Bluff Rd can go on no further because of a political obstacle, an invisible line drawn arbitrarily across the Tsawwassen Peninsula along the 49th parallel by men of two nations in dispute over two centuries ago. Here the Americas were divided by the British and the United States, today forming the border between British Columbia, Canada and Point Roberts, Washington, USA. And while there are plenty of border crossings between the United States and Canada across this imaginary line, there is none quite like the one at the end of English Bluff Rd.

The Oregon Treaty of 1846 extended the boundary between what would become Canada and the United States along the 49th parallel from the Georgia Strait all the way east to the Rocky Mountains. The 49th parallel cut right across the southern tip of the Tsawwassen Peninsula and while an agreement was met between the parties to bend the border around the southern part of Vancouver Island – keeping that island entirely in British territory – such an accommodation was not made for the tip of the Tsawwassen Peninsula.

This southern tip fell below the 49th parallel and as per the Oregon Treaty, became part of the United States. Thus Point Roberts became what geographers term a practical exclave; a part of the USA reachable by land only via Canadian roads. Indeed it's much closer to downtown Vancouver than the nearest major US town. But this doesn't stop the school buses full of US school children from getting a US education. They travel every day over the border into Canada and re-enter the United States at Blaine, before reversing the journey in the afternoon. Similarly, Canadians pop across the border to buy cheaper petrol, groceries and consumer goods where US retailers won't ship to Canada.

The portion of the Tsawwassen Peninsula that falls below the 49th parallel is only 3km from north to south and about 5km east to west. The total area of this tip of America is only 12.25 km2, an area roughly equivalent to Melbourne's CBD and immediate inner suburbs.

To an ausländer, this border and its polite sign is truly bizarre. Like many, I am used to seeing images of the Mexican border in pop culture: a frontier no-man’s-land that Donald Trump wishes to turn into a modern concrete and iron curtain.

But here in Point Roberts, this most fortified of national borders is little more than a few feet of concrete and a sign. No barbed wire, no land mines, no watch towers.

Or so it would appear.

There is more to this border points than meets the all-seeing Street View eye. While the end of English Bluff Rd where Canadian asphalt meets the 49th parallel may look like little more than an gentle barrier, technology makes it more fortified than ever. The modern surveillance panopticon means there can be eyes on the ground even when there are not actually eyes on the ground. They might be cameras on poles or even in trees, but somebody is always watching. 

Even pressure sensors are said to line the border, making this invisible barrier a barrier that is truly invisible. A simple jump across any of these deceptively empty strips of land may likely result in a prompt visit from US Border Patrol, helicopters blaring overhead. Just because the overt symbols of surveillance and control aren’t there, doesn’t mean they’re not watching.

It's this security that makes Point Roberts one of the most curious gated communities in the world. In addition to its cheap (for Canadians) petrol, it's apparently a regular home for those in US witness protection programmes.

There are plenty of US/Canada border towns, all of them more secure than a cursory glance might suggest. In Abbotsford, British Columbia, two roads run side-by-side, each adorned with a slightly different yellow line marking, for one is in Canada and the other in the United States. All that lies between them is the legacy of history and a 2-foot-wide strip of grass.

Stanstead, Quebec is another, sitting right across from Derby Line, Vermont. For decades, these two towns have spread geographically with little regard for the imaginary line of long-dead statesmen. The towns’ library and opera house was built straddling the border, so that citizens of both sides could use it. Likewise families and friends built lives with little regards for the map. Neighbours would share a lawnmower or beer, even if there did happen to be an invisible line bisecting their lives.

For years, this was how things were, but in the surveillance era, even casual transgressions of the line are not permitted. The painted line on the road is no longer a symbolic line, but an enforced division. US Border Patrol monitors the streets, having blocked off a number of “unguarded” roads. The US border authorities call the Stanstead/Derby Line region a “unique challenge” – that’s law enforcement parlance for “we’re cracking down and cracking down hard because terrorism”.

It makes me wonder, if Australia had land borders, what would they be like? Despite our secure island geography, Australians are inordinately afraid of the “other”. How Australians enforce their maritime borders might provide an idea of how we would enforce our hypothetical land border.

I think it would be fair to say this imaginary border would bear more resemblance to the USA’s Mexican border than its Canadian border. No small signs asking you to go the long way around to “present” yourself to a member of Dutton's Team Border Force.

Instead I imagine dogs and razor wire and landmines and watch towers, like a scene from a Cold War thriller set in Berlin. "Saving lives at sea" could no longer be used by conservatives as a rationale for strong borders, so some other notionally palatable reason would have to be found, perhaps saving them from being very tired after a long walk. All supported, naturally, by a taxpayer-funded telemovie warning of the perils of coming by land to Australia.

And we’d probably make Indonesia pay for it.

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