One of the most striking things separating the United States and Canada is the line that divides the United States from Canada. While oceans, lakes, rivers, drainage basins, deserts, mountain ranges, and valleys dictate the size and shape of many nations, the pin-straight border running from Lake of the Woods to the Pacific Ocean is nothing if not completely and utterly arbitrary.
The western half of the world’s longest land border was laid down in three stages: In 1783, an understandably cocksure Benjamin Franklin won British acceptance of a border extending from the “northwesternmost point” of Lake of the Woods to the Boundary Waters laid out in the Treaty of Paris, the denouement of the United States’ fight for independence. This border would have made much more sense if the source of the Mississippi River had been where both parties suspected, but then it was a botanist, not a professional cartographer, who had created the map negotiators were working from.
In the aftermath of the second, wholly less conclusive war with Britain (the War of 1812), the forty-ninth parallel was established in the Anglo-American Convention of 1818 as the border between Lake of the Woods and the Stony [Rocky] Mountains. In this agreement, the point identified by Franklin was linked to the slightly more southerly forty-ninth parallel by a north-south line that would later form the boundary between present-day Manitoba and Ontario.
A generation later, a potential third conflict with a Britain approaching the zenith of her imperial might was a risk US president James Polk was keen to avoid. Despite having run on an expansionist platform, and with hawks in his own party screaming “Fifty-four Forty or Fight!” (the slogan of an initiative to push US territory north to the Russian colony of Alaska), Polk compromised, and the forty-ninth parallel boundary was extended beyond the Rockies to the Strait of Georgia. The Oregon Treaty in 1846, then, seemed to be the last significant amendment to the matter of the US-Canada border—until “Grumpy” Gary Dietzler had his revolutionary idea in the spring of 1997.
Dietzler, sixty-seven, is one of about a hundred year-round residents of the Northwest Angle and Islands, a 302-square-kilometre US exclave unwittingly created by the comically unwieldy Article II of the 1818 treaty. Some years later, when a survey team led by English Canadian explorer David Thompson eventually located Franklin’s northwesternmost point of the lake and surveyed the fix specified in the new document, it was found to intersect other bays of the lake, cutting off a Malta-sized chunk of US territory. The anomaly is easily found on a map: simply follow the forty-ninth parallel from west to east, and you’ll see a small upward jut, “the chimney of Minnesota,” just before the border begins to wobble off its 2,300-kilometre perpendicular course.
With Ontario to the north, Manitoba to the west, and open water to the south and east, the Angle enjoys the distinction of being the northernmost point of the contiguous forty-eight states, the only part of the continental US north of the forty-ninth parallel, and one of only four non-island locations in the lower forty-eight not directly connected by land within the country. But the Angle’s superb walleye fishing, rather than its curious location, is what sustains the local economy. It was an enduring threat to this livelihood from Ontario that spurred Dietzler and a small handful of others to explore the idea of seceding from the Union and joining Canada. The notion quickly grew beyond fanciful bar talk, and within a few months it was introduced as a bill in the US House of Representatives, supposedly prompting a miffed Bill Clinton to place an urgent call to Jean Chrétien.
Let’s ruminate upon this milieu for a moment. What could be more panic inducing to the American psyche than a group of rugged, tenacious, individualistic US citizens opting out of the dream in favour of Canada? In 1997, it might have seemed too ludicrous a proposition for many Americans to ponder, but what about now? Not only is the United States a more bilious, ailing, and fractious place than it was thirteen years ago; but in 2010, Canada consistently bests its neighbour on almost every metric pertaining to quality of life. The American wont, of course, is to compare our two countries with a more fiscal eye, but even there Canada has largely cast off its hard-won image as the habitual underperformer.
You’ll excuse me for unabashedly singing Canada’s praises. I do realize it’s considered unspeakably gauche around here, but I’m a recent émigré, and as such possess a bullish, patriotic zeal that has lingered on beyond the hoopla of the Winter Olympics. I also feel that in some way I’m a physical embodiment of the mother country and her North American offspring: Born and raised in England, I’m the grandson of a World War II vet from rural Nova Scotia who saw bloody action across Europe. After graduating from a London university, I lived in the United States for a decade before following a woman to British Columbia and marrying her. Now, sitting at my desk in Vancouver, I can clearly see the snowy peak of Mount Baker in Washington state, and am compelled to think about life on either side of this blatantly synthetic line. Visiting the Northwest Angle, then, seemed like an opportunity to meet with an entire community mulling over the very same thing. Is there a point, after all, where pragmatism trumps patriotism? My aim was to gain a better sense of where that point might lie by pitching Canada as the better place.
To access this american outpost by land from the rest of Minnesota, one must cross the border into Manitoba, drive through the hamlet of Sprague, and continue along several kilometres of unpaved roads before re-entering the United States at the Northwest Angle. There, arrivals are required to check into a booth at “Jim’s Corner” and report to US Customs via videophone. Before leaving the Northwest Angle by road, one must report to a Canadian customs officer stationed in the same retrofitted porta-potty. In addition to laminated signs explaining the peculiar protocol for phoning in declarations, the booth’s walls are plastered with posters advertising various items for sale and upcoming community events, which imparts a quaint, welcoming feel.
I’d made arrangements to stay at Jake’s Northwest Angle, a resort run by the Colson family, whose forebears arrived here in 1917. Paul Colson, now forty, was one of the would-be revolutionaries, along with Dietzler, but it was Paul’s wife, Karen, a native of Dauphin, Manitoba, who showed me to my cabin when I arrived, just after sunset.
“Our kids have dual citizenship,” she said after I expressed my interest in the township’s previous flirtation with Canada. “I have a green card but am in no hurry to naturalize at this point. It would require me to make an oath renouncing any allegiance to Canada, and I don’t wanna do that. But you never know what’s going to be around the corner, so Paul and I wanted to give our children as many options as possible.”
Shooing away several large white-tailed deer from around the deck, Karen gave me a quick tour of my cabin. It’s a homey, cozy sort of place where the Bibles left by the Gideons aren’t tucked away in the nightstands’ drawers but left on top of them, opened: Galatians in one bedroom, Acts in the other. “Oh, it’s a thing my mother-in-law used to do,” said Karen when I asked her how deliberately the passages were chosen. “Now the cleaning lady does it.”
When I asked about the events leading up to the proposed secession, she smiled and recommended that I speak with her husband about it, as he’d been more intimately involved with the process.
I’d already read that the pretense for the secession attempt was the so-called Walleye Wars that had been raging between Minnesota and Ontario in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Ontario had begun imposing fees, quotas, and bother on Americans fishing in Canadian waters, and incentivizing walleye enthusiasts to stay at nearby Canadian resorts, where they could legally keep more of their day’s catch. This not-so-neighbourly conduct is wrapped in an apocryphal tale about an Ontario official, Guy Winterton, getting splashed by a Minnesota motorboat and vowing (with shaking fist, one assumes) to drive the Americans off this mostly Canadian lake. Ontarians dismiss this story as fantasy, of course, maintaining that the conservation of their fish stocks, not vengeance, was the impetus behind toughening their laws.
Whatever the underlying reason, the new Canadian laws had a devastating effect on Angle Inlet. Despite attempts to sell the experience of walleye fishing and not just how many fish one could fit in a cooler, resort occupancy dropped off and everyone in town felt the pain. Angle fishing guides and business owners cried foul, but their efforts to lobby Congress were largely ignored.
Then, in the early spring of 1998, Collin Peterson, the representative from Minnesota’s Seventh District, surprised Congress by proposing a constitutional amendment that would allow Angle residents to vote on seceding from the United States and joining Manitoba. Ostensibly, this was to save the livelihoods of his constituents, who, had the proposal passed, would have ceased to be his constituents and would have become, well, Canadians.
The two questions that had perplexed me since I first heard about the revolt were what had motivated Peterson to introduce a bill that his political adversaries would surely frame as treasonous; and why the secessionist fervour in the Northwest Angle had been quelled while reactionary movements like the Tea Party had rapidly gathered momentum in the rest of the country. I put in a call to Peterson’s office.
The following sunny fall morning, I drove along one of the gravel roads that make up the town’s thoroughfares and past a featureless nine-hole golf course, before arriving at the Angle Inlet post office. It’s definitely the most northerly post office in the contiguous United States and, at about thirty metres square, possibly the most twee. “Postmaster” almost sounds like too grand a title for the woman seated in the poky wooden box, but that’s been Judy Risser’s gig for the five years since she took over from her husband, George. She was happy to answer questions about the idiosyncrasies of living in a place where anything from visiting a doctor to buying fabric softener involves crossing an international border four times, but she giggled and smiled coquettishly when I inquired about the citizens’ uprising.
“Well, I’m not the best person to talk to about that,” she said before furnishing me with several phone numbers for town residents who could better enlighten me about the episode. At the top of the short list were Gary Dietzler and Paul Colson. The other names and numbers she gave me were for other people I might find interesting to talk with—people like Deputy Bob Nunn, the exclave’s one-man police force; and Linda Kastl, the long-serving teacher at Angle Inlet’s one-room schoolhouse.
The only tantalizing insight Risser gave me into the prevailing feeling here in the late ’90s was that the vast majority of residents favoured the proposed draconian action, and were prepared to take their righteous belligerence to the limit.
On my drive over to Jerry’s, the only eatery in daily operation during the Angle’s October low season, I looked for residual signs of anti-government feeling but only found Old Glory in abundance. And yet this wasn’t the United States as I knew it. Jian Ghomeshi’s soothing tones were coming in crystal clear on the radio, and a sign in Jerry’s parking lot heralded the recent arrival of Labatt Blue.
The lakeshore restaurant was practically empty. The waitress looked bored, and the titular Jerry sat at the bar, his red-rimmed eyes glued to the Fox News channel. I offered to buy breakfast for the only other diner in the place if she’d be willing to chat with me.
Blond, lithe new mother Jenny McKeever is from Utica, New York. While visiting her parents, who had retired to Angle Inlet, she met and married Brian McKeever. The McKeevers own and operate Young’s Bay Resort and have lived in the Northwest Angle for several generations.
“I think all that was pretty much just a political ploy,” she said about the separatist movement, between forkfuls of hash browns. “I mean, I wasn’t here when it all happened but, y’know, from what I’ve heard. At least, I think it was. You’d have to check. You ought to talk to Gary.”
I stepped outside to the pay phone (cellular reception is scant out here) and left a message on Dietzler’s machine. He was clearly the one I needed to contact for some comprehensive answers.
After breakfast, Jenny gave me a golf cart tour of her in-laws’ resort and introduced me to her father-in-law, Rick. Born on nearby Flag Island and raised in the Angle before the arrival of electricity, phone service, and a road out of town, Rick McKeever told me about his grandparents, who emigrated from Ireland by way of Montreal before settling in this most peculiar part of the United States. Back then, before passports, Nexus cards, and border protection officers, the line demarcating the Northwest Angle and Islands from the Canadian land that ensconced them must have seemed even more nebulous and nonsensical than it does today.
Later that afternoon, I knocked on Dietzler’s door, hoping to catch him at home, to no avail. Across the street from his house is the Northwest Angle Resort, which he owned and operated for many years. Next door is the bar that, until he retired and sold it some five years ago, bore his nickname: Grumpy’s. Grumpy, I supposed, was certainly an emotional state you’d pass through on your way from patriotic citizen to secessionist agitator.
A hundred metres down the road, across a bridge that spans a reedy “crick,” stands an informative plaque dedicated by “the Friends of Franklin, Inc. of Philadelphia” and, beyond that, the one-room Angle Inlet School. The Warroad, Minnesota, school district funded materials, but the building was constructed by community members who dutifully donated their skills, toil, and equipment to the project. Class was letting out as I arrived at around 3:45 p.m., the longer school day due to a recently instituted four-day week.
“I’m still getting used to it,” admitted the warm and welcoming Mrs. Kastl as she invited me to sit in a miniature schoolroom chair. “But a lot of the parents like it because it means the kids can help out at the resorts on Fridays.”
Since arriving in 1985, Kastl has seen her class size fluctuate between five and sixteen students, though low enrolment forced the school to close from 1992 to 1994. Upon reaching high school age, Angle kids take a bus through southeastern Manitoba to Warroad, where they’ve earned a reputation for being high academic achievers as well as just “good kids.”
“This is Drake,” said Kastl, introducing me to the last child waiting to be picked up by his parents. “It’s his first day here, and he’s our international student.”
The seven-year-old First Nations child lives on Chippewa land that straddles the United States and Canada and has no accessible school. While he is technically an “international student,” his home is no real distance from Angle Inlet, and he’d arrived that morning by motorboat. His new teacher also commutes by boat, until the lake freezes in December and snowmobiles become the only viable transport to town. I asked her if the children have a sense of how unique their little part of the country is. “Well, we certainly learn about it,” she said. “But when you’re ten years old and it’s all you know, it probably doesn’t seem that spectacular. They probably get more of an appreciation for it when they leave for Warroad.”
Pointing up at the Stars and Stripes hanging over the classroom, I asked about the possibility of taking it down one day and hoisting l’Unifolié. Kastl looked at me quizzically. “Um… I can’t imagine that would ever really happen,” she said. “I mean, I wouldn’t want that to happen.”
“But there’s a growing disparity in the quality of education in the United States and Canada,” I said, which was rather crass of me, given the exemplary results Kastl had achieved over the past twenty-five years in Minnesota’s last remaining one-room school. Before I had an opportunity to make our chat even more awkward, her husband called to say that he had the boat pulled in at the dock and was ready to take her back home to Bear River, some eight kilometres away.
On my way to an early dinner at Jerry’s, I ran into Brian McKeever, Jenny’s husband, Rick’s son, and a former student of Kastl’s. Despite having just returned from a hard day’s work, he kindly offered to show me something out on the lake that predates even Ben Franklin’s involvement with the Angle.
With the dismembered bit of Minnesota to port and Ontario to starboard, we sped across the mouth of the inlet toward Magnusson Island, at the onset of what photographers and cinematographers reverently refer to as the golden hour. A course had been set for Fort St. Charles, an exact site reconstruction of the headquarters for a New France fur trader, explorer, frontiersman, and military officer named Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye. Constructed in 1732, the fort was then the most northwesterly settlement in Canada. La Vérendrye—who is analogous to Davy Crockett but without the singable name—established this outpost as he pushed westward into uncharted Rupert’s Land on his quest for the great “Western Sea.” This was fancifully imagined to be a gulf-like body of water that began in the middle of the continent and opened up at the Pacific—a proto–Northwest Passage and a shortcut to the Orient. In 1736, a party of Sioux massacred nineteen French Jesuits, along with La Vérendrye’s son, on nearby Massacre Island, in retaliation for La Vérendrye’s supposedly trading guns with their Cree and Assiniboine enemies. The victims’ remains were eventually recovered and reburied at the fort. As the sun slunk behind the stockade and the blockhouse, fair-bearded Brian turned my attention to the plaques covering the burial spot: “The Nineteen Skulls and Bones to Which Skulls Probably Belonged” and the “Headless Bodies of Rev. Father Aulneau and J.B. La Verendrye, Son of the Explorer.” On this desolate part of the lake, it was an eerie scene, made eerier as a gust of wind blew open the blockhouse door, causing its wooden hinges to creak loudly.
Though the Minnesota Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus did a fine job of restoring this historical site in the mid–twentieth century, the Stars and Stripes flapping high above the structure presents a galling anachronism to a fledgling Canadaphile; the original fort had long been abandoned, and the elements were already breaking down its edifices by the time tea was being indignantly flung into Boston Harbor. If he had raised a flag at all, La Vérendrye—a product of the ancien régime from Anjou, France—would probably have flown something emblazoned with a fleur-de-lys. Since 1670, the Hudson’s Bay Company had been the nominal “owner” of Rupert’s Land (which encompassed this area), but the enterprising La Vérendrye didn’t feel beholden to the British charter and took pains to operate independently. Perhaps that alone prompted the fallacious addition of the American flag.
Beyond the seldom-visited fort and the historical plaque, the Northwest Angle deserves a proper museum. Not only was the area an important stepping stone in the opening up of the West, and a fascinating study in the gradual ad hoc bisection of the North American continent; it has also been home to some truly fascinating people. People like Houston Stockton, a journeyman carpenter and “philosopher hermit” who took his own life by canoeing out to a quiet spot on the lake and igniting several sticks of dynamite he had strapped around his chest, exemplifying an unbroken local tradition of imaginative and theatrical resolutions to untenable discontent.
The next day, I unknowingly bumped into the ubiquitous yet seemingly elusive Gary Dietzler at “coffee club,” the twice-daily powwow held at Jerry’s and attended by the retired, the semi-retired, and the seasonally underemployed of Angle Inlet, Minnesota.
“Gary, this is the writer who’s been looking for you,” said postmaster Judy Risser.
“Well,” he said from behind glasses, a walrus moustache, and a long summer’s worth of melanin. “You found me.”
We arranged to meet up at his house at four. There, in his living room, I was handed a beer and a bowl of pretzels and shown to a spot on the couch.
“I won’t join you in a beer,” he said. “I don’t like it, even though I used to own that bar next door. But I do like some whisky, though.”
The whisky, incidentally, was Canadian Club. He drank it in a tall glass with a lot of ice, some Coca-Cola, and, interestingly, a giant green olive.
“It’d been a long time coming,” he began. “We’d been battling Ontario, wait, not Ontario… the asshole who ran the Department of Natural Resources over there for… twenty years.”
Dietzler, a wholly engaging raconteur, gave a chronological, expletive-peppered account of the events that compelled him to do something he has a track record of doing well: using his local politicians and affecting real change in short order.
“Y’know that phone booth you called in on when you arrived? ” he said. “That little, short, fat son of a bitch what owned the bar over here got it there. Me! I convinced US and Canadian customs to have a meeting about [the possibility of having a phone-in border crossing installed]. What I didn’t tell them was that I’d invited [US Congressman] Collin Peterson, Louise Dacquay [Speaker of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly], the head of the chamber of commerce in Kenora, the head of the Lake of the Woods cottage owners’ association from Ontario. They thought they were gonna come up here and give us lip service, but we ambushed ’em with the big wheels, and they got it done. That’s how politics works. You have to know how to use your representatives, make ’em work and build alliances over time. I’m gonna tell you, there are about ten state senators I could call up right now.”
The idea of secession came to Dietzler when the Ontario authorities ruled that all fish caught by US boats in Canadian waters had to be released, quickly hobbling businesses in the Angle.
“Did we really want to secede? ” he says, parroting my question and delaying his answer with a sip. “Well, no. I just knew that we were going to have to pull a big stunt to get some attention on an issue that was running us into the ground. We got our representative to introduce a bill allowing the citizens of the Northwest Angle, not to secede, but to vote on secession. If you secede, you’re a traitor; they’re gonna shoot ya. See, every state in the union would have to ratify this with a three-fourths majority, so we knew it couldn’t happen. And you have to give Peterson credit, because it was a dead bill when it was introduced.”
Speaker Louise Dacquay threw in her two cents as Peterson, Dietzler, Colson, et al., hashed out the language of the apparently phony legislation. “When she saw that we were planning on seceding to the province of Ontario, she [Dacquay] said, ‘No, Gary, you’ve got it all wrong. Say that you wanna join the country of Canada; then you’ll be fought over by the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario. They’ll both want you, because you’re sitting right here on the lake.’ And that’s exactly how it played out.”
To maximize the bill’s media impact, the whole operation was kept secret until the morning it was introduced by Peterson in DC, with just a handful of people apprised of the ruse. Dietzler called Reuters to run the pre-written story the minute the broadcast of the legislation was confirmed. Those left in the dark included members of the Red Lake Indian band, who hold 70 percent of the Northwest Angle’s land; a couple of elderly Angle residents who braced themselves for a swift and brutal military reprisal; and, most comically, the provincial governments of Ontario and Manitoba. Dietzler can barely recount the Canadian reaction for laughing. Admittedly, what happened next does sound like the plot of a South Park episode.
“Manitoba already had a law introduced, just sitting over there, allowing us to join, accepting us as citizens, giving us dual citizenship, giving us video gambling and tax-free status. They would have even paved the road,” he says. “Then Ontario comes in with their offer. They flew in by helicopter, by the way, didn’t clear customs, and got in a whole bunch of trouble! Oh yeah, they wanted us. Exactly why, I couldn’t tell ya.”
The next several days were a media frenzy, with the handful of self-appointed spokespeople on the action sticking to the party line of “We don’t want to secede, but we’re at the point where we’ll have to do something radical if this issue isn’t resolved.”
Dietzler’s proudest clip was being quoted as calling the Canadian officials who used “resource depletion” as grounds for their restrictive laws “lying sons of bitches” in the Wall Street Journal—something that still elicits chuckles of delight.
Within a day of his turn in the media spotlight, Dietzler got a call from Jim Southwick, an attorney at former US vice-president Walter Mondale’s Minneapolis law firm. Southwick immediately recognized that Ontario’s new laws could violate the NAFTA agreement, which, it just so happened, he had helped draft. “Neither country can pass a law that gives a business advantage to their citizens over ones in the opposite country,” affirms Dietzler, paraphrasing the agreement.
With Southwick’s help, the matter was eventually resolved, and sport fishermen slowly began returning to the Northwest Angle. After apologizing profusely to local Red Lake chief Bobby Whitefeather for not consulting him, as well as to the elderly couple he’d inadvertently scared half to death, Dietzler and company were satisfied that they’d achieved something like the status quo ante bellum. “There’s still differences between the way we do things on this side and what they want us to do in Ontario,” he says. “We can use live minnows this side; they need us to use dead minnows over there. Catch and release requirements differ, but generally we got what we wanted out of the deal.”
By the time the violations were dealt with and the agents provocateurs felt comfortable admitting that, yes, their secession attempt was merely a media stunt, they no longer had the world’s ear. That’s why the news reports that made up my initial research portrayed the event as a genuine geopolitical game of footsie with Canada. With the truth laid bare, I felt about as duped as Manitoba and Ontario must have. Dietzler chased that fat olive around the bottom of his glass with two stubby fingers before fixing his gaze on me.
“This was a while back, y’know,” he said, after finally getting a grip on his salty prize. “Why do you want to know about it now? ”
I got ready to give him the hard sell on Canada, supported by a mountain of statistics including, but not limited to, our higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality, our higher ranking on the human development index, the greater leisure time we have at our disposal, the more sex we have, our lower rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, the less debt we carry, the less violent crime we’re likely to be impacted by, the much smaller percentage of us that wind up in prison, our great showing in the Economist’s 2010 most livable cities in the world rankings—three in the top five, with Vancouver in the top spot—and the fact that, by some measures, we’re richer.
“So I know it was a stunt, but let’s say it were possible for a second,” I began, after spluttering out these juicy factoids. “Wouldn’t it benefit the Angle to come over to our side? ”
Dietzler paused for a worrying amount of time, and I started to look toward the door.
“Bottom line, I’m a US citizen,” he said. “Do we have problems here? Yes. Some horrible problems that you don’t have up there. Our government isn’t working right now. The Democrats and Republicans are like the Sunni and the Shia. It’s tribal. Do I like socialized medicine? I’m on socialized medicine with Medicare and, yeah, I think it’s a great deal. I’m fortunate. I’m comfortable and, yeah, why shouldn’t I give a little to others who are less fortunate than me? I have so many Canadian friends it’s ridiculous, and I like the Canadian people. I think they’re more like how we used to be. They go out there on their own; they’re sorta ‘go get ’em.’ The US is more urbanized, tamer now. But, like I said, I’m a loyal US citizen. Whatever the circumstances, that ain’t gonna change, even if it could. I ain’t gonna be a Canadian.”
I’d failed to convince the ringleader of the mock secession to defect in a game of what if, but I appreciated the opportunity to broach the subject with the guy who took a real step, however ulterior his motives, toward exploring an idea that had previously resulted in a bloody civil war. As I left, the not-so-grumpy Dietzler unveiled a highly polished Harley-Davidson motorcycle in his garage.
“British Columbia, huh? ” he said, as we peered back at our reflections in the bike’s chrome trimmings. “Taking this out there is something I gotta do before I croak. It’s gotta be beautiful out there.”
I assured him that it was and offered an open invitation to visit. If Dietzler’s familiarity with southeastern Manitoba hadn’t changed his mind, perhaps a trip out beyond the “Stony” Mountains would.
That evening, i visited with the Colsons, enjoying a drink with them on their deck under a starry sky. Rangy, hyperkinetic Paul Colson was grimy and tired from a sunset duck hunt, but came alive when he told me about his involvement in the separatist stratagem as a twenty-seven-year-old.
“We met with Collin Peterson at the Warroad school,” he said. “I was sort of nervous. We’d talked among ourselves about threatening to secede but, hey, this was our congressman! I had a book in my hand called How to Start Your Own Country. He must have figured out what we were thinking and saved us from saying it. He looks up and says, ‘Ever thought about secession? ’ Our own congressman! It was sort of surreal.”
Though Colson—who’s been a fishing guide on the lake since he was just thirteen—had been negatively impacted by Ontario’s ever-tightening grip on the lake, the regulations did hold one personally significant silver lining. “We probably wouldn’t have met if all this hadn’t happened,” said his wife, Karen. “I was working a summer job on the Ontario side, and at the time they were requiring American fishermen to clear customs on the lake. The customs booth was right next to me, so we just kinda met on the dock.”
Later, fully lubricated, I cleared my throat and began to pitch Canada in earnest.
I only got as far as the growing disparity in our nations’ life expectancies when Colson energetically interjected. “Don’t tell me that your health care’s free,” he said, leaning forward. “You pay a lot more tax than I do. Besides, we know of people who have died waiting for treatment up there.”
On down the list, Colson countered my memorized statistics with further illustrative anecdotes until, still at loggerheads, we came to an amicable détente. I’ve lived in Canada long enough to err on the side of politeness. That’s probably why I neglected to mention the September 2010 Newsweek poll in which almost two-thirds of Americans (63 percent) said they didn’t think they could maintain their current standard of living. But then my goal wasn’t to iterate America’s lurch toiletward—which could only have negative economic implications for Canada—but to sell my admittedly rose-tinted interpretation of the Canadian dream to a community of hard-working folks who were a mere flag swap and a rehearsal of “O Canada” away from sharing in it. I suppose, as a slightly effete guy with an English accent, I probably had my work cut out for me. Perhaps it wasn’t so much the message Colson vigorously pushed back against as it was the messenger. Or maybe I couldn’t get any traction precisely because I wasn’t selling my message on the potholed streets of Gary, Indiana, or in a foreclosure-ravaged neighbourhood of a Las Vegas suburb, or in any one of the countless American communities where signs of decline and despair are palpable, but rather in a bucolic nook where crime is virtually non-existent, where residents pay little in taxes and neither expect nor require much in the way of federal or state assistance. Aside from occasional problems born of its weird location, life in the Northwest Angle is conspicuously pleasant.
“I’ll tell you this,” said Colson as I gracelessly dismounted his deck and stumbled back to my cabin a beer or two later. “It takes a big set to sit there in DC and volunteer legislation about a bit of your constituency leaving the country.”
“Believe it or not, proposing that a bit of Minnesota join Canada was much safer for me personally than what they wanted me to do,” said Congressman Collin Peterson when he personally returned my call some days later. “See, the Canadian Pacific train goes through the top of Minnesota, on the southern shore of the lake. Gary Dietzler wanted me to lay down on the tracks! So I said, ‘Let’s think of something else to get some attention on this.’”
Unlike Angle residents, Peterson recalls the prospect of secession as a very slim but real possibility. “I asked them, ‘Do you care if you’re American or Canadian? ’ and I took it that it didn’t make a whole lot of difference to them,” he said. “So I said, ‘Let’s propose that you secede.’ I knew it probably wouldn’t happen, but if people could see the situation and know that it was born of a mistake, yeah, I could imagine it happening.” Surprisingly, Peterson didn’t know that this part of his constituency was created by accident until he had a chance to read the original Treaty of Paris, some time after he’d drafted and introduced the secession legislation.
“Personally, I think the people in the Angle have more in common culturally with their Canadian neighbours than they do with most people in the lower forty-eight,” said Peterson, exhibiting a laissez-faire stance on the residents’ leaving. “Until they had cable and Internet up there, they could only pick up Canadian TV and Canadian radio. If the Angle became absorbed into Canada one day, it’d probably take a while for anyone to notice.”
Unfortunately, Peterson could neither confirm nor deny Paul Colson’s story about a Clinton-Chrétien phone call on the subject, though he does recall that the US State Department got “pretty excited” for a hot minute.
On my way out of town and out of the country, I stopped in to visit with Bob Nunn, the township’s cop. With just eighty-eight days left before his retirement, I found him feeding three does, a buck, and a fawn in his yard.
“There was a burglary three or four years back,” he said when I asked him about the sort of crimes he investigates. “But that’s a real rare thing.”
The only reliable and regrettable thing Nunn has to deal with is the occasional snowmobiler falling though the ice on the lake. Beyond that, he expects his retirement won’t look too different from the deputyship he’s held for the past thirty years.
“Maybe I’ll get in an extra day or two fishing per week,” he said.
This appeared in the January/February 2011 issue.