Trying to arrange the details of a summer holiday journey from San Francisco up to Vancouver in British Columbia brought memories of a history text book in school days that had a chapter comparing the West with the Communist bloc. A black and white photograph inset to the side of one page showed one of those huge 1960s American automobiles passing through a tunnel. On the tunnel wall, a vertical line was painted. To the left of the line there were letters on the wall declaring, “Canada”; to the right of the line, “United States”. Underneath the photograph, a caption in italics said, “An open border”. Was it so easy then, to move around? Maybe it was.
Such days are long past. It is around 250 miles from Portland, Oregon to Vancouver; advised journey times by bus or train are eight to nine hours because of the expected delays in crossing the border; apparently on the bus you have to get off, get your luggage and walk through the customs and immigration. The last time I had to walk across an international border was between Rwanda and Burundi, two of the poorest nations on Earth.
Canadian immigration control is tight. Arriving in 2008, we were asked the places we were visiting and why we were visiting each of them. One of our destinations was the resort town of Penticton; the immigration officer sneered at our answer, ‘Penticton? Why would anyone go to Penticton?’ The owner of the Penticton guest house in which we stayed was less than impressed when we recounted our experience.
But who is all the security for? Does world peace depend upon making life difficult for people journeying from California to Canada?
Canada and the United States are hardly hostile powers. They have a joint radar defence system; they are close in military and trade co-operation. The security is not directed against each other, it is directed against illegal and subversive activities within their countries. Yet, like many law enforcement measures, it probably has most impact upon the law-abiding, being completely evaded by those at whom it is directed.
There are probably few international terrorists or illegal migrants trying to travel up from Oregon, through Washington and into BC on a Monday morning in July. They tend to move at less public times through less public places. The border crossings are probably as effective against crime as the Garda immigration official checking my passport at Dublin airport when I fly in from Britain. Were I an illegal, I would cross from Scotland into Northern Ireland by ferry and simply catch the first bus from Belfast to Dublin.
Rules have always seemed to apply only to those who keep them. Security measures seem chiefly to annoy only those who pose no threat anyway.
The alternative? Perhaps to create a consensus within society about what is acceptable and what is not; to say that people must much more be vigilant in their own communities and report those guilty of anti-social activities; to say that people working together for a secure world makes it a happier place for everyone.
Before the First World War, it was possible to travel through Europe without even a passport; a barrier free world is not impossible. It would even allow a journey from Portland to Vancouver in a time faster than a journey in central Africa.