The island Canada forgot: On Campobello, citizens are left exiles in their own land
Victoria Matthews can understand the attraction of Campobello Island, N.B., to an outsider. It can seem a magical place, with rocky coastlines, dramatic ocean vistas, big tides, bogs, lichen-shrouded forests, clams to dig for and wild blueberries to pick by the bucketful come summer.
There are lighthouses, seabirds, breaching whales and, for history buffs, a star attraction: Roosevelt Campobello International Park, 1,134-hectares centred around the family cottage of former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor.
There are also the locals, about 800 or so permanent residents, such as Matthews. They hold community fundraising suppers, watch out for their neighbours and welcome scads of mostly American cottagers and tourists who stream across the Roosevelt International Bridge from Lubec, Maine.
But despite Campobello’s postcard-worthy attributes, the 23-year-old Matthews has pretty much had it with the place. It’s not that the island doesn’t feel like home. It’s that Campobello makes her feel as though she is a Canadian living in exile — physically, politically, practically, medically and economically separated from the rest of the country — which, more or less, she is since the bridge is the island’s only physical link to mainland North America and it’s not to Canada.
“At this point, there is not a whole lot I can say that I love about Campobello,” Matthews said. “Like, for example, our grocery store, it is really limited in choice. The only meat is ground beef, chicken and steak, and the fresh food spoils real quick and there is no fish, well, once in a great while our convenience store will have some fish. But if I want to buy real food, I have to drive all the way to the superstore in Canada — and that means I have to drive through the States to get there.”
There used to be a 30-minute privately owned summer ferry service connecting Campobello to Deer Island, N.B., but the service stopped in 2017 after the boat sank and it has yet to resume operation. To get to mainland New Brunswick to buy, say, groceries, islanders must cross an international bridge, clear U.S. Customs, turn right, drive 85 kilometres through Maine and check-in with Canadian customs in St. Stephen, N.B.
After all that, they are ready to go shopping, but not, ideally, for oranges, mangoes, potatoes grown in Western Canada, rice in burlap bags, avocados, more than 12 plants or a new pet parakeet, all of which are banned by U.S. customs.
Once back at the border, the islander must declare all the fruits and vegetables they have purchased to U.S. agents, and do the drive in reverse to get home, including passing (again) through Canadian customs. All told, one shopping trip equals four border crossings.
But Matthews has more pressing needs than groceries. Her three-year-old son, Walter, has some learning challenges. He was assigned a caseworker in St. Stephen in October and a plan was made for the specialist to commute to Campobello four days a week to work with him. That plan hasn’t been initiated yet, because the Canadian specialist is waiting to receive a passport.
“It is a little frustrating,” Matthews said.
Islanders with plumbing problems speak of the impossibility of finding a mainland New Brunswick plumber willing to travel through Maine for a job. The same goes for electricians, septic bed maintenance companies, freshwater well-digging operations, washer and dryer repair technicians, major construction firms, furnace repairmen and veterinarians.
To get treatment for an ailing cow, an island farmer, and there are a handful of them in a predominantly fishing community, requires a permit from the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to import the cow into Maine for the drive north to Canada — which nobody bothers doing. What they will do, according to Campobello Mayor Stephen Smart, is arrange for a lobster boat to take the beast on a cross-water trip to the New Brunswick mainland.
Island residents will also spend the majority of their income in the U.S. to avoid the multiple border crossings, the mayor said, regardless of the less-than-robust Canadian dollar.
“If our community is going to survive and not become a ghost town or simply a summer residence for the Americans, whom we actually do like, we need an easy way for Canadians to come and visit us, as far as tourism goes, and a clear way for us to get to Canada without going through the U.S. border,” Smart said. “Some people here, they don’t leave the island, unless they can leave it by boat. We’re down to 800 people. Our high school graduating class is down to four kids. I see transportation as a critical barrier to growth.”
Campobello’s day-to-day isolation from the rest of Canada irks Senator David Adams Richards, an award-winning New Brunswick author who sits in the Senate as an independent.
Richards is an outspoken critic of Bill C-21, a new amendment to the Canada Customs Act intended to crack down on smuggling and facilitate the sharing of traveller information between U.S. and Canadian border officials. The act received Royal Assent before Christmas, and the senator suspects it will amplify the daily headaches islanders already experience in relation to the border.
If our community is going to survive and not become a ghost town or simply a summer residence for the Americans, whom we actually do like, we need an easy way for Canadians to come and visit us, as far as tourism goes, and a clear way for us to get to Canada without going through the U.S. border
Campobello Mayor Stephen Smart
“The residents of Campobello must travel through a foreign country while transporting goods and services from one part of N.B. to another,” Richards said in an email to the Financial Post. “The regulations imposed and the new regulations enacted will make it almost impossible to conduct daily affairs.
“Even the basic transportation of household goods can be scrutinized by border security working for the U.S. government; in theory and in practice, the people of the island have been stranded by a good degree of thoughtlessness.”
Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Ralph Goodale’s office in a statement to the Financial Post said the “traveller’s experience will be entirely unchanged” by the new bill.
The anti-smuggling component of the bill, moreover, is intended to target items such as “stolen vehicles and materials that violate Canada’s anti-nuclear proliferation obligations,” the statement added. “To deal with these problems — which are not serious concerns with respect to Campobello Island shipments — C-21 gives Canada Border Services Agency officers the discretion to require reporting and to conduct examinations, as and where necessary.”
The one thing Senator Richards, Mayor Smart, Victoria Matthews, Campobello’s Progressive Conservative MLA Greg Thompson and Liberal MP Karen Ludwig can unanimously agree upon is that, ultimately, the island needs a year-round ferry service binding it to mainland Canada.
Thompson, a long time Conservative MP under Stephen Harper, has been bemoaning the “thickening of the border” since 9/11. But he said getting a ferry into action would take two to five years minimum, and that’s assuming all the players involved had already discussed how much it would cost and who was going to pay for it, a hypothetical dialogue that hasn’t happened yet.
“I am a big fan of magic wands, but you don’t often get control of the wand,” Thompson said.
Some lay the blame for the island’s isolation on East Coast Ferries Ltd., which operated the Deer Island-to-Campobello seasonal ferry loop until last season, when its ferry sank. The company has since built a new ferry, dubbed the Hopper III, but it is in bureaucratic limbo, awaiting a visit from Transport Canada officials to certify it safe for the coming summer.
Widespread chatter ensued in the absence of the ferry service last summer, ensnaring islanders, the New Brunswick media and different levels of government. But for all the noise, nobody apparently bothered to call Leanne Silvaggio, manager of East Coast Ferries Ltd., to ask what was up with the boat.
It wasn’t that we didn’t want to be running the ferry last summer. We had to rebuild the whole ferry, and it just didn’t get done in time
Leanne Silvaggio, manager of East Coast Ferries Ltd.
“Pretty well everybody likes to talk to everybody else except for us,” she said. “It wasn’t that we didn’t want to be running the ferry last summer. We had to rebuild the whole ferry, and it just didn’t get done in time.”
Silvaggio has heard, though not directly from Thompson, that the province is interested in extending the Campobello ferry’s operating season, starting earlier in the spring and running it later in the fall. (Thompson later confirmed that extending the ferry’s operating season was a logical interim measure and something the province will be pursuing.)
“If that is the plan, we’re interested,” Silvaggio said.
Extending the season would be a definite plus, but it is not a permanent fix, something Brent MacPherson, founder and chair of the Campobello Year Round Ferry Committee, a citizens group dedicated to its namesake task, wants to resolve.
MacPherson is 62, semi-retired and married to a native islander, Victor Mitchell. The couple moved to Campobello a little more than a year ago, but recently pulled up stakes after Victor, a hairstylist, got sick of commuting across Maine to get to his four-day-a-week job at Pure Hair & Esthetics Studio in St. Andrews, N.B.
The 160-minute round trip was long, to be sure, but the border crossings are what rankled Mitchell, 66, most. As a hairstylist, he travels with a bag containing clippers, scissors, a blow dryer, combs, brushes and other related tools that U.S. border agents repeatedly questioned him about.
Even more aggravating was when the pair traveled together as a couple. MacPherson believes, admittedly without any proof, that he and Victor were flagged at least “six to 10 times” by the U.S. simply because they were married men.
Nonetheless, MacPherson loves Campobello, wishes he still lived there, and was instrumental in pushing for a federally funded feasibility study on a year-round ferry service.
Phase one of the study was a survey completed in October. It revealed 81 per cent of island business owners feel that “crossing the border today is more difficult than five years ago, mostly owing to lengthier American border controls.”
When you take all the bad things out, all the inconveniences, and just look out at a summer’s day, you see that living here is pretty tough to beat
Scott Henderson, a Campobello native
It also found that a majority of islanders purchase between “21 and 100 per cent of their goods in the U.S.” Three-quarters of the respondents said they would happily divert their dollars to Canadian businesses — a total pegged at about $3.1 million annually — were they linked by a year-round ferry.
“There are strong regional economic benefits associated with a year-round ferry,” the survey concluded.
It is a conclusion Scott Henderson can’t dispute. Henderson is 56, and a Campobello native. He runs a small construction company that relies on twice-weekly deliveries from a supplier in St. Stephen. Henderson makes the order, and the supplier deals with the border-related paperwork.
Construction being construction, there is always something more he needs — a nut, bolt, light bulb, other bits and bobs — so he drives across the Franklin Delano Roosevelt bridge several times a week to Lubec Hardware on Water Street. He also gets gas and does his banking in Lubec, because Campobello doesn’t have a gas station or a bank.
Henderson reckons he spends a $1,000 a month at the hardware store — the owner doesn’t take Canadian currency at par — money, being Canadian, he would prefer to spend in Canada.
“I am 56 and I’ve lived here all of my days. I think everybody has thought about moving off the island at some point. Some of our elderly spend two or three days a week going back and forth to doctor’s appointments in Saint John,” he said.
“Sometimes, living here, it just feels like you are in the middle of nowhere. But when you take all the bad things out, all the inconveniences, and just look out at a summer’s day, you see that living here is pretty tough to beat.”