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Blue Highways: Sarnia, Ontario

Unfolding the Map

Oh Canada, once we get over the border with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM), will you show us your secrets?  Well, not really.  LHM is just taking a shortcut to New York.  But, in our brief, and first ever on Littourati, sojourn into another country I'll reflect a little on how easy it used to be to get into Canada as a US citizen, and how difficult it's gotten since 9/11.  A driver's license just doesn't go as far as it used to.  Immigrate over to the map if you want to see where Sarnia, Ontario is located.

Book Quote

"I crossed the St. Clair River into Sarnia, Ontario, and stopped at Canadian customs to assure officials I carried none of this or that, had enough money for my stay, was unarmed, had no live animals, and would be in the country only a few hours."

Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 1

Downtown Sarnia, Ontario in winter. Photo by Rob at Rob's Arena Tour website. Click on photo to go to host page.

Sarnia, Ontario

It used to be so easy to cross into Canada.  Then 9/11 changed it all.

The first time I went into Canada, I was fifteen and had never been outside of the state of California.  My family decided to take a real family trip, a type of trip that we were to never repeat.  Somehow, my parents had found a cheap cruise for us out of Vancouver, British Columbia.  It was cheap because the ship was a Soviet cruise ship with a big hammer and sickle on the smokestack.  The Soviets were trying to make inroads into U.S. and Canadian tourism, so we headed up to Vancouver, an overnight drive from my hometown, to board for what I think might have been their maiden voyage.  Unfortunately for us the timing was bad.  The Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the US took economic countermeasures and, in the middle of our cruise up to Alaska, shut off most US ports and scenic attractions to us.  Our cruise mostly became one of going in and out of Canadian fjords.

What little I remember of our border crossing at the time was a friendly Canadian border guard asking what we were going to be doing in Canada.  I remember my father handing over his and my mother's identification in the form of their drivers' licenses.  Because us kids were all younger than sixteen, we didn't have I.D.'s and so I guess my parents had to vouch for us.

I remember just how cool it felt to be in Canada.  It was my first foreign country and even though today I see how similar the two countries are, through my fifteen-year-old eyes everyone and everything had this strange foreign hue to it.  The money was different, the shops had different names for the most part.  People spoke with a slightly different accent.  The names in the countryside were a little English and charming.  I met a couple of kids on the ship who were from a place called Surrey, which I learned was east of Vancouver, and it sounded so exotic to me.

I was a few years older the next time I went into Canada, and it was for the same reason that LHM went into Canada though in reverse.  I had made a trip out to the East Coast and happened to be in western New York.  I also had a person from Detroit with me.  Rather than going the long way around Lake Erie, we decided to cross over into Canada at Niagara Falls and make for Detroit.  Again, all it took was a driver's license.

I learned that air travel was different when my girlfriend and a friend went to Vancouver by air and while changing planes she learned that she would need a passport to get into Canada once she landed.  She didn't have hers with her and flew to Vancouver full of dread that they'd send her back.  After telling her that ordinarily she'd need a passport, Canadian authorities let her in and she got to enjoy her trip.  Ahhh...the days before Al Qaida ruined it for all of us...

Now, in this time of heightened border security, it seems that we have to bring our passports almost everywhere we go to prove that we are who we say we are and that we have a right to be where we are.  However, this border security is selective.  While goods and services are able to cross many borders without any problems, people cannot.  For example, after the U.S., Canada and Mexico signed and ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), barriers to trade and services were lowered and eliminated between those countries.  Goods traveled freely back and forth between those countries.  But barriers were kept up to inhibit the flow of people.  Even if NAFTA created jobs, most people from Mexico who might want those newly created and lucrative jobs in the US were discouraged from getting them.

Then 9/11 happened, and security went way up.  The US is now in the process of building a border fence to keep poor Mexicans from coming across the borders in search of better work.  The last time I went to Canada, I crossed at the same border crossing where LHM will recross back into New York.  I had to show a passport.  The Canadian border guards were less friendly than I remembered, and more efficient and businesslike.  When I came back through the border at Niagara Falls, bored US border guards barely said a word.  When I walked across for a look at the Falls from the Canadian side, I found to my amusement, and a little shame, that it was free to walk into Canada but 50 cents to walk back into the US.  I watched people fumbling, trying to find 50 cents to get their kids and themselves into the US, and I could only shrug as I realized that even the border had become a money-making opportunity - reducing our deficit 50 cents at a time.  Welcome to the US, now pay up.

Perhaps we had a wakeup call as to how the world really is dangerous when the terrorists slammed jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  But what I really hate about Al Qaida, and our response to it, is that I almost feel like the U.S. has become the loner barricaded in the house, constantly suspicious of everyone and everything.  And I hate that our response has created a similar response in our friendly neighbor, the neighbor with whom we share the longest unmilitarized border in the world.  I miss the good old days when a license and a smile were all I needed to be thrilled that I could cross into a country so like my own, and yet different enough to feel a little exotic and thrilling.

Musical Interlude

Immigration Man, by Graham Nash and David Crosby and released in 1972, stems from Graham Nash's unfortunate experience with a U.S. Immigration official as he was coming back into the US.  It's a great song.

Here's a wonderful live version by Crosby and Nash in 2010:

Or if you prefer the 1972 studio album version:

If you want to know more about Sarnia

City of Sarnia
Sarnia Bayfest
Sarnia Observer (newspaper)
Sarnia Ontario Heritage Blog (nothing published since 2010, but good information)
Tourism Sarnia-Lambton
Wikipedia: Sarnia

Next up: London and Brantford, Ontario

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    Very interesting post am so surprised to read your experiences and memories. Canada is a beautiful country. The advancements of technology have brought revolutionary changes in every country their policies have also changed with the time.

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