Two years ago, after a final confusion with Immigration Canada, and wanting to continue my life in Vancouver BC, I took the path of least resistance and moved to Point Roberts, Washington, population 1300 or soish. It’s not just a border town, it’s an American exclave unconnected to the rest of the lower 48. The nearest Canadian town, Tsawwassen, is a suburb of Greater Vancouver and is divided from Point Roberts by a narrow country road and a drainage ditch. At some points, we literally look into each other’s windows. My own home is about 300 meters (or 328 yards) from the Canadian border, and it takes me 30 or 40 minutes to drive to downtown Vancouver depending on the time of day.
Point Roberts (a.k.a. Point Bob or The Point) is sometimes described as “Vancouver’s American suburb.” Other descriptions include “almost heaven, almost Canada,” and “nowhere surrounded by somewhere.”
I describe it as the uninvited RV parked in Canada’s driveway. You know the one I mean. The inhabitants are not only noisy and untidy, but they’ve tapped into your water and power supply, and seem unclear about boundaries. They wander in regularly to use the bathroom, the kitchen, or the laundry. They borrow your books, nap on your couch, and drink the last of the coffee. And you can’t get rid of them because a) they’re family, and b) they’ve taken the wheels off the RV and hidden them somewhere you’ll never find them.
Point Roberts happened more or less by accident in 1846 when the U.S. and Great Britain finally agreed to separate their western possessions at the 49th parallel. No one noticed until it was too late that strict adherence to the parallel on the mainland cut off the tip of the Tsawwassen peninsula in British Columbia, making Point Roberts a part of the United States even though it was in no way connected by land to that country. Opinions differ on why this never got fixed. One theory is that the Americans planned to build a fort to stand against Victoria, but got distracted by the Mexican-American War. Later, fishing rights and other special interests worked to maintain the status quo. Today, Point Roberts remains a five square mile chunk of America dangling off the tip of the Greater Vancouver Area.
The border used to be a casual thing. Many older Vancouverites still grow misty eyed as they recall the 1970s and 80s when the Point was best known for its rock concerts and dance clubs. Changes in liquor laws, a fire at the largest of the clubs (the Breakers), and the fact that the border guards were empowered to arrest drunk drivers put an end to most of the Point’s wild times.
Post 9/11, the border has thickened and solidified. Old timers still remember when locals maintained little foot bridges across the drainage ditch that marks the border so that people could go back and forth at will. The footbridges are gone now and anyone who crosses illegally will be lucky to get off with a warning. We’re not quite sure how they’re monitoring who comes and goes, but there are rumors (or rumours depending which side of the border is talking) of concealed cameras, motion detectors, and possibly drones. Most of us play it safe and go through the official crossings, once a couple of modest kiosks, now an intimidating array of cameras, scanners, and barricades on both sides.
When I first moved to Point Roberts, I worried that the border might come to define my life, that I would hesitate to go out, to do all the things I wanted to do, because of the inconvenience and the fact that just crossing a border was always a gut clenching experience for me even though I knew I wasn’t up to anything. By now, after crossing that border at least twice daily and sometimes more often, I’ve gotten pretty blasé about the whole thing. I know the guards and they know me. I have a Nexus card and I’m not afraid to use it.
Perhaps the greatest change in my life has been adapting to all the duplication. Point Roberts sells gas by the liter (or litre if you prefer) as well as the gallon, and the speed limit posted just past the border crossing gives the speed limit in both miles and kilometers. I use metric and imperial interchangeably if not always accurately. I’m OK with either as long as I don’t have to convert. I have two library cards, one of which accesses the Whatcom County system and the other the entire lower mainland of BC; this is very handy. I also have two phones, the landline in Point Roberts and a Canadian cell. Also, two wallets, two credit cards, two debit cards for two different accounts, and two separate sets of coins and bills.
I see that mirrored in Point Roberts businesses which feature double barreled cash registers: two drawers, one with greenbacks, one with loonies. Usually, the greenbacks are on top, but not always. After all, the Point’s main customers are Canadians using our post office, mail drops, cheap gas, eggs, dairy products, and their “courtesy bottle” of wine which the guards will allow across the border even if they haven’t been in the US long enough.
I also have two governments even if one of them doesn’t recognize me as a citizen. That became rapidly apparent this year when a Canadian border blaster radio station filed its intent to build five huge towers in Point Roberts in order to broadcast into Canada. The towers would be ugly and affect not only Internet service, but most electronic devices from baby monitors to hearing aids. Nor would the impact be limited to Point Roberts; because of the direction of the broadcasts, the adjacent town of Tsawwassen (population 23,000) is likely to be even more affected. Within weeks, we formed a cross-border coalition and began to fight the project. I assumed at first that this would still be a local matter with the Canadians rousting out their MLA and mayor while we did the same with our representatives and county councilors. That has occurred, but we are also filing suits in D.C. and lobbying the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) while, at the same time, meeting with members of Harper’s cabinet. In Point Roberts, even as local a matter as zoning codes are an international incident.
As annoying as that can be, a lot of the charm of Point Roberts is related to its ambiguous national identity. It is a beautiful place, a rustic patch of serenity, of cedar forests and driftwood strewn beaches, a stark contrast to the Canadian side of the border which is gentrifying at a frightening speed. That doesn’t happen much in Point Roberts in good part because of the logistical and legal problems of development. It does have a successful marina and golf course, a lot of mail drops, liquor stores and gas stations, and a small number of bars, restaurants and shops, some of which only open in the summer, but that’s about it.
Seasons matter in Point Roberts; it has two distinct personalities. In winter, it’s a quiet place, and most of the 1300 regular residents are older if not actually old. Most are also American, although there are a surprising number of other nationalities represented. Winters in Point Roberts are quiet and punctuated only occasionally by craft and bake sales.
But as soon as spring arrives, so do the Canadians, mostly Vancouverites. The population quadruples or even quintuples, and the demographics change dramatically. The Point ceases to be primarily a retirement community and becomes a focus for young families and children. Some of the summer folks rent or camp, but many have cottages that have been in their families for generations. They are not, for the most part, transients. They come every year and often are not even vacationing the full sense of the word. They commute to their jobs from their summer homes. They are a part of the community, albeit part-time.
The attraction for these summer residents is only partly the natural beauty of the place. The other attraction is safety. How often do Canadians say that about the U.S.? But in Point Roberts, they feel free to let their kids play and ride their bikes, often unsupervised by adults, a rarity in this age of helicopter parents. But everyone knows that unless the kids have their passports, they can’t really go anywhere. And the crime rate is close to zero. The Point is the most securely gated community on the planet.
Both the summer residents and the permanent population enjoy the golf course, sailing, summer markets, beach walks, and outdoor concerts. One big highlight of the summer season is the first four days in July. These kick off with fireworks, beer, and hotdogs to celebrate Canada Day and continue through to the Fourth of July when we get another round of fireworks, more beer and hotdogs, and an old fashioned parade. Even in the winter, the duplication continues. We celebrate both Thanksgivings; no turkey is safe in Point Roberts. And most recently the local firehall hosted a Remembrance Day/Veterans Day service while the local supermarket offered a choice of poppies or flag pins. Or you could give a larger donation and get both.
All this leads to an oddly bifurcated vision of the world for those of us who live here full time. Last week, I went to the Post Office to send off my ballot. (Washington State votes by mail.) As I popped my envelope into the slot, I noticed several of my neighbors carrying the same distinctive star-spangled envelopes. We nodded a silent acknowledgement of what we were all doing, but we didn’t discuss the election. We talked about the CBC and Jian Gomeshi, a matter that for us, hits much closer to home.
Some of us have taken to flying what we have dubbed the official flag of the Duchy of Point Roberts. Although marketed as a more general “friendship flag,” it embodies a lot of what goes on here. It’s a star-spangled maple leaf.
Antonia Levi is a recovering academic (Japanese History), currently reinventing herself as a fictionista. Her forthcoming novel, Almost Canada, is a work of magical realism that plays along the Point Roberts-B.C. border and features a shape shifting raccoon. She has published a number of short stories and poems, but this will be her first novel. Her previous publications include two books about Japanese animation: Samurai from Outer Space (Open Court, 1996), and Boys’ Love Manga (MacFarland, 2010), both of which include transforming raccoons (tanuki) and other Japanese shape shifter legends.