fb-pixel

On quiet Campobello Island, Canadians angered by US inspection of their mail

Moira Brown, a resident of Canada’s Campobello Island, examined a package that had been opened by US agents.
Moira Brown, a resident of Canada’s Campobello Island, examined a package that had been opened by US agents.Greta Rybus for the Boston Globe

CAMPOBELLO ISLAND, New Brunswick — The 800 people who live on this unhurried, pine-studded island on the fringe of Canada have long regarded their American neighbors as family.

They’re linked to the Maine fishing village of Lubec by an international bridge, their only year-round connection to the mainland of either country. But the ties run much deeper than a two-lane road.

They’ve attended dances together, married each other, and been waved across the US border by Customs officers who know their names, where they live, and when they do their shopping.

But good feelings here — at the easternmost crossing on the world’s longest undefended border — have been ruffled by puzzling and persistent prying from US Customs and Border Protection agents.

Advertisement



They have been intercepting mail bound for Campobello since September, searching Amazon packages, personal letters, Christmas presents, and even medications headed toward the island made famous as president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s summer retreat.

The mail comes from elsewhere in Canada, but these postal deliveries to Campobello must pass briefly through the United States for nine months of the year when ferry service isn’t available from the Canadian mainland.

A Campobello Island fisherman navigated the harbor. For nine months each year, mail from mainland Canada must first pass through Calais, Maine, before being delivered to residents. US inspection of the mail has angered many on the island.
A Campobello Island fisherman navigated the harbor. For nine months each year, mail from mainland Canada must first pass through Calais, Maine, before being delivered to residents. US inspection of the mail has angered many on the island.Greta Rybus for the Boston Globe

The inspections have infuriated many islanders, who have yet to receive an explanation from US officials. And it has made many of them feel mistreated by a country they depend upon for myriad goods and services, including gasoline, banking, and hospital emergencies.

“It’s an invasion of our privacy,” said Dale Calder, a retired Canadian government employee who supervised the Campobello side of the crossing for 17 years. “There’s personal correspondence in there, people’s health records, and financial records. What are they doing with it once they open it?”

US Customs isn’t saying. The rash of searches began without warning, islanders said, and American officials have cited only their broad discretion to search all goods entering the United States.

Advertisement



The searches aren’t happening in Lubec, but 45 miles away in Calais, Maine, a border crossing that from October to May is Campobello’s sole link to the rest of Canada. A ferry provides access from the island to mainland New Brunswick during the summer, but the US highway between Lubec and Calais is the only way to reach other parts of Canada at any other time.

For now, there’s no way but that highway for mail to reach Campobello.

“I don’t like American bullies, and this kind of stuff bothers me,” said Steve Hatch, a Campobello resident with dual US and Canadian citizenship.

Campobello Island has a population of around 800. Residents can only access the island during most months of the year by a short bridge that connects the island to Maine.
Campobello Island has a population of around 800. Residents can only access the island during most months of the year by a short bridge that connects the island to Maine. Greta Rybus for the Boston Globe

Calder said he received a holiday package from his sister in Ontario that had been opened and resealed with bright-green tape. “Examined by US Customs and Border Protection,’’ it read.

“They didn’t open any of the gifts inside, so what’s the point?” he asked.

Moira Brown, a senior scientist with the Canadian Whale Institute, complained that a pasta-maker mailed as a gift from Alberta had been opened.

And Kathleen Case, postmaster in the Campobello village of Welshpool, rolled her eyes when she recalled that mail sent to the library also had been searched.

“It seems bizarre to me. It seems they’re looking for anything they can find that’s illegal,” she said. “If they find cannabis, so be it. But why would the library be getting weed in the mail?”

Marijuana is believed to be at the heart of the issue, although it’s far from clear. Cannabis is legal in Canada and Maine, but transporting pot across the US border is not. As a result, Cannabis New Brunswick, the only legal retailer of recreational marijuana in the province, ceased shipments to Campobello in September after the searches began at Calais.

Advertisement



US Customs authorities did not respond to a Globe request for comment. But many islanders are mystified that the inspections have not subsided in the aftermath of Cannabis New Brunswick’s decision.

“They’re just opening packages. They’re not even using dogs” to sniff for marijuana, said Pauline Alexander, a lifelong islander. “I think there is a little power-tripping going on.”

Campobello residents readily concede that US Customs is within its rights to search the mail, even if they are unhappy about it. The mail was opened on a large scale twice before, they said: in the 1990s, and then again after Sept. 11, 2001.

But those lasted only a week or so. During the first occurrence, Calder recalled, a Canadian delegation met its counterparts in Calais and was in no mood to negotiate.

“We’re not telling you what you can’t do,” the Canadians politely told the Americans. But if the searches continued, they added, “we’ll open everything going up the Alaska Highway” from the Lower 48.

The mass inspections stopped almost immediately. But now, it’s happening again.

The mail arrives in Campobello via a sealed, bonded truck that is driven from the border community of St. Stephen, New Brunswick, which is opposite Calais.

Advertisement



The mail is handed to the truck in St. Stephen by Canada Post, but US Customs takes control once the driver crosses the St. Croix River and enters Calais, Calder said.

“Someone suggested it’s a rogue Customs officer. If it is, he must be very busy,” said Calder, a lifelong Campobello resident. “It doesn’t seem right that you live in a sovereign country, and the mail’s being searched by another country to determine if you should have it.”

Case stressed that she is speaking as a Campobello resident when she complains about the mail, not in her official capacity as postmaster. For its part, Canada Post issued a statement acknowledging that US Customs is within its rights to “detain or seize any item which they deem to be inadmissible.”

Canada Post said it hoped to see fewer delays as it works with US Customs, but Case said she had not seen any significant changes. Parcels and letters continue to be opened nearly every day, she said, and the items being searched do not fit any neat category.

“I’m mortified when I see the tape. That’s a big deal to me. That’s someone’s mail,” Case said. “But to Customs, that’s just another truck with cargo on it.”

Brown, the whale researcher, said she has not sent biological samples to the New England Aquarium for an international study, as she had hoped, because she worried that the packaging might be opened.

“In the past, I would mail them,” she said. “Now, I won’t risk it.”

Advertisement



Many Campobello residents fault their provincial and federal governments, which have declined for years to provide a year-round ferry that would provide direct access to the Canadian mainland, eliminating the need for the mail to travel through Maine.

“The reality of that bridge is, once I reach the middle, I’m completely dependent on the mercy of the US government,” Case said.

So far, the dispute with US Customs appears limited to border officials, not with Americans generally. They’re still neighbors on either side of Lubec Narrows, and they share a maritime past as well as the same rugged stretch of Down East coastline.

But 9/11 changed many things, including a sleepy border crossing at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Bridge.

“I’d love to see things go back to the way they were before,” said Mackie Greene, a boat captain who leads the whale rescue unit on Campobello. “But now, in today’s age, I don’t know if there’s any way to fix it.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.