Even when I spent some time living in Nova Scotia, a good deal of the local political conversation still involved Maine.
The economic, demographic, environmental and geographic links between Atlantic Canada and New England were a constant topic of discussion and debate.
A plan for increased economic integration proposed by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax, known as "Atlantica," was one example. Business and political leaders in the Maritime Provinces argued that, in the era of globalization, we should strengthen historical, regional bonds and minimize our differences in order to compete with the rest of the continent and the world.
Others saw this and similar proposals as part of an agenda to undermine environmental laws, worker protections and social programs in order to serve the interests of multinational corporations.
Protests erupted at several regional conferences exploring these kinds of ideas, including one on our side of the border in Bar Harbor. In 2007, an anti-Atlantica protest in Halifax turned violent and three people were injured.
In Maine, the debate about these kinds of issues may not be quite as heated, but we often hear about the importance of international trade, electricity distribution, fishing rights, border security and transportation links.
Much more rarely, however, do we hear about the personal stories of the bonds and divisions between us and our Canadian neighbors. Thankfully, that's goal of a new book by New Brunswick-based CBC reporter Jacques Poitras titled "Imaginary Line: Life on an Unfinished Border." The book is part personal travelogue, part history lesson and part treatise on international relations.
Poitras explores the history of the border dispute between the United States and Britain, including the so-called Aroostook War, with a thoroughness that made me feel suddenly and strangely jingoistic about the extent of Maine's Northern territory. (Everything south of the highlands should have been ours, dangit!)
From his visits to towns on both sides of the St. John and St. Croix rivers, Poitras brings tales of smugglers, cross-border families and the effects of changes in border enforcement since Sept. 11, 2001, on people's everyday lives. These are the small stories that give real meaning to a line on a map.
In Madawaska and Edmundston, New Brunswick, for one example, he details the network of international pipes that pass under the St. John River, linking two mills built by Fraser Paper Co., where pulp, steam and electricity flow easily from one country to another as part of daily business.
Another interesting element Poitras explores is what the border has meant for the French language in the Acadian populations of Maine and New Brunswick.
On the Canadian side, French has remained strong and has become more protected by federal and provincial law. On the American side, the language has withered to the point that the youngest generations can no longer communicate easily with their unilingual, francophone grandparents.
I've been a big fan of Poitras' work since I read another of his books for college class. "The Right Fight: Bernard Lord and the Conservative Dilemma" may not sound that interesting for anyone not steeped in provincial New Brunswick politics, but it's actually a fascinating piece of journalism full of stories of political maneuvering with universal appeal.
It's not surprising, then, that some of the best parts of "Imaginary Line" are political. This includes the debate about a proposed LNG terminal in Washington County and a look at the rise of the tea party in Maine and its adoption of a national border-sealing agenda.
Also included is a brief interview with former governor and now U.S. Senate candidate Angus King.
"The problem is the two countries have very different rules and views on things like firearms," King is quoted as saying. "But I always argued we should work to harmonize our immigration policies and our legal policies so we could move towards opening up the border between Canada and the U.S. I made that statement in the weeks after 9/11, and everyone told me I was crazy, but that's what I think."
Poitras is taking advantage of some of Maine's cross-border links to visit us this week. If you'd like to learn more about life along what he terms "an arbitrary line that shouldn't be there, almost wasn't there, and can be difficult to find even when it is there," you can hear him speak at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Thomas College Auditorium in Waterville and at 12:30 p.m. Thursday at the Franco-American Center at the University of Maine, Orono.
Mike Tipping is a political junkie. He writes the Tipping Point blog on Maine politics at DownEast.com, his own blog at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People's Alliance and the Maine People's Resource Center. He's @miketipping on Twitter. Email to firstname.lastname@example.orgTweet
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