by Mary Ducharme (April 2017)
Not long ago, a gazetteer was looking for information about Roxham, wondering if it was a community or a ghost town. We know it as very much alive, and visitors to that small stretch of road hugging the border feel as if they have entered a gentle time warp, gratefully quieter than the rest of the world. Now helicopters, sirens, police lights invade the peace – at odds with sun-dappled century houses and ancient shade trees. The world’s troubles have come to Roxham’s doorstep.
Border residents on both sides routinely cross the international line every day for work, shopping, or visiting families and friends. The guards know our faces and are friendly. But on this very same ground bitter conflicts of history have been fought in which the British and the French battled over territories along the Champlain, Richelieu and St. Lawrence corridor. During the War of 1812, and during the Papineau Rebellion, soldiers and contraband weaponry flowed both ways across the border for purposes of invasion. Leading up to the American Civil War, crossing the line with the help of the “Underground Railroad” meant opportunities for a new life in Canada for thousands of former slaves. After the Civil War, a radical group called Fenians, refugees from injustice in Ireland and in the United States, left the ranks of the military with the idea of liberating British North America from English rule. Border skirmishes and attempts of invasion alarmed local residents. During Prohibition, crossing the border illegally became an art form. Today seasonal migrant workers in our region, on both sides of the border, are terrified of crossing or even being seen in grocery stores.
Along the border of Hemmingford there have been stories for decades of frozen bodies of abandoned illegals attempting to cross through rough winter woodlands. There are stories about foreign families being drowned in the lake because their smuggler guides feared pursuit by authorities. The escalation recently will be part of the historical narrative of our region.
A recent news article by Johnathan Monpetit of CBC sketches the story of just one example of these refugees. Mamadou (not his full name) came to New York City as a refugee ten years ago, and in early March in bitterly cold weather, he was found barely conscious near the Lacolle Border Station and was later hospitalized. His desperation resulted from being denied legal asylum at the border because of “the Safe Third Country Agreement” which allows asylum only in the first safe country where refuge is sought. Trump’s attempted immigration reform has 434 immigrants like Mamadou who regard the U.S. as no longer safe. Because he was in New York, Mamadou could not seek refugee status in Canada, and thus, in his own eyes, he became a man without a country with nowhere to go.
With violent radicalism growing world-wide, there is an unprecedented multi-national exodus of the dispossessed, harried from pillar to post by governments and other aid agencies who exploit them for profit or political objectives. These are not just the poor and uneducated; among them are highly skilled professionals, academics,and business people whose lives are being wasted in horrific containment camps or in trying for new beginnings in countries where they experience racial hatred. The current American campaign to “crack down on illegal immigration” has drastically changed the perception of the United States as a safe country. Now refugees are painted with the same broad brush as suspected terrorists.
Border residents have become eye-witnesses to conflicts happening around the globe. Answers to what we can do here are few as discovered in a recent meeting between concerned neighbours and various immigration authorities at the Hemmingford Recreation Centre. Organized by the United Church, the people attending were more than willing to do what is possible to ease the journey of those passing through, but as one person said sadly, “we can’t fit it.” We can’t fix the world, but we can let our voices be heard among our own politicians that in this country it is possible for the dispossessed to rebuilt their lives in safety.
Mamadou was just passing through. May he find a safe country.