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The Boundary

The International Boundary

If you look along the International Boundary between Canada and the United States in any forested area, it will appear simply as a 6 metre or 20 foot cleared swath stretching from horizon to horizon, dotted in a regular pattern with white markers. Over mountains, down cliffs, along waterways and through prairie grasses, the line snakes 8,891 kilometres or 5,525 miles across North America, tranquil, undefended but not uncared for. The boundary vista must be entirely free of obstruction and plainly marked for the proper enforcement of customs, immigration, fishing and other laws of the two nations. The job of keeping the boundary vista in proper condition falls to the International Boundary Commission. The Commission was founded under the Treaty of 1908 for one specific purpose: the complete reestablishment and mapping of the boundary from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. The boundary had already been defined by treaty and most of it surveyed by 1874. The fires of national honor, which had flared up over the legalities of boundary location and had colored American and Canadian relations for 140 years, had been relegated to the history books. But between 1874 and 1908 the boundary had become overgrown and monuments obliterated so that it was necessary to reestablish the border demarcation to avoid any uncertainties that could lead to dispute. In 1925, when it was realized that such maintenance would have to be on a continuous basis, another treaty was signed establishing the Commission as the permanent caretaker of the boundary area and its markers.

Defining the Boundary

The proper definition and demarcation of the boundary is still as essential for law enforcement as it was throughout the history of boundary establishment. It prevents local misunderstandings that could lead to disputes. The International Boundary Commission, under International Treaty, maintains the 8,891 km (5,525 miles) boundary shown on 256 official boundary maps. The Commission inspects, maintains and re-establishes over 8,000 monuments and reference points, 1,000 survey control sites and keeps a 6 metre or 20 foot wide clear vista along the land boundary line.

The Vista

Reclearing of the 2,172 kilometres (1,349 miles) of boundary vista through forest and brush requires a major portion of the Commission's efforts. Early clearing operations were carried out using manual tools such as axes, machetes and hand saws. Over the last quarter century power-saws have greatly facilitated clearing operations.

The present day emphasis on contracting out will result in a greater portion of the maintenance being completed under these arrangements.

Legal Aspects

The Commission is responsible for determining the position of any point on the boundary necessary to settle questions that might arise between the two governments. For example, law officers preparing to make arrests for smuggling or drug trafficking in the border area must be sure that their suspects are on national territory. Also, if ships collide in the St. Lawrence or on the Great Lakes, their position must be accurately known to determine where the legal case will be heard. Such legal teasers were common during the 140 years it took to establish the present boundary location. In fact, the following examples became major issues in redefining the boundary from a general description in treaty papers to a surveyed and marked line on the ground. In 1825, an American citizen symbolically raised an American flag on the north shore of the Saint John River, and then declared that he would defend its honor. Legally, could he have been tried for treason in a British court when ownership of the territory was in dispute? In 1859, an American citizen on San Juan Island shot a pig - the property of the Hudson's Bay Company. Could law enforcers take him before a magistrate in Victoria and make him pay damages under British law? In 1845, an American citizen made a claim on alleged land of the Hudson's Bay Company north of the Columbia River. Was this claim to be honored in territory already claimed by the British? Attempts to answer such questions arose as settlers moved across North America. They resulted in clashes between the settlers, land claiming prompted by national pride and imperial design, and negotiations that sometimes approached open hostility. But in the end, diplomacy prevailed and the boundary was accurately described and marked on the ground, ending such problems.

Permission for construction

The International Boundary Commission Act provides for the regulation, by the Commission, of any "work" within 3 metres or 10 feet of the boundary line. This work may include billboards, building additions, airstrips, railway stations, transmission lines and pipelines. No additions are allowed to the buildings still on the boundary vista. These include a hotel and a cocktail lounge on the Quebec - New York line and many buildings in the villages of Derby Line, Vermont, and Rock Island, Quebec, where the boundary passes through bedrooms, apartments, a library, a factory and even an opera house. Obtaining Permission for Construction To perform any type of work on the 20 feet(6 metre) wide vista along the boundary, a letter of authorization by the commissioners is required. Work is defined in Section 2 of the International Boundary Commission Act, R.S.C. 1985, c1-16, as: "Any ditch, earthwork, building or structure of any description or any lines of telephone, telegraph or power, including posts, piers or abutments for sustaining or protecting the wires or cables of those lines." The applicant wishing to obtain an authorization for work on the boundary vista in accordance with Section 5 of the Act must provide to the Commission the following documents:

1) A detailed letter describing the type of work proposed and it' s general location(lot #, municipality, town, province/state).

2) Two copies of drawing showing the location of the proposed work in relation to a boundary monument or boundary reference monument. The application must be submitted to the section of the Commission in the applicant's country. If a permission is granted for construction by the Commissioners, the letter is valid for both countries.
© International Boundary Commission, 2008