Firsts at the Border(s): US-Canada’s Peace Arch Park

Emily Packer

I was recently fortunate enough to travel to the state of Washington and visit the Douglas Border Crossing Station, a busy crossing station into Canada. After spending many weekends documenting and observing the goings-on in Friendship Park at the US-Mexico border, this spot was particularly interesting to me because of the international park that lies there. Although Friendship Park and the “Peace Arch Provincial Park” exist approximately on the same latitude, book-ending the west coast of the US, the culture of the parks is vastly different. I will be comparing these two parks somewhat, but for a better understanding of the unique situation at Friendship Park, please scroll through the incredible photos by María Teresa and others, and take a look at our “About” section.

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So there I was, at the border again for the first time. The signs on the freeway leading there warned against picking up hitchhikers, not running over families. The place itself seemed to condone the celebration of the border, even hosting advertisements for the historical place on the official lamp poles. The same border patrol cars and camera towers patrolled the area, although I found out later that you can access some of these feeds in order to ease your traveling across the border (see here). Even though I could already tell it would be different from outside the park, I was nervous, and I was thinking about the first time I went to the border in San Diego.

To give you a sense of how hesitant I was on that first day, or how strange a place the border is, below are some notes I wrote on December 29th, 2014 (all of the photos included here I also took on that day):

As I’m driving to the site at the border, the landscape begins to change somewhat rapidly. I don’t remember reading anything about ranches, farms, or mountains leading up to the dirt road towards the border. I am along on the road and I imagine that I can pass through some secret portal into Mexico, one that hasn’t been sealed off but no one knows about and I can’t find again, even to get back. Suddenly I’m there accidentally, as if my eyes got wider or the land swallowed up me and my car as if we’d never know the difference. I wonder where this fantasy comes from, this wanting to slip by undetected. Because I could easily just cross. I could cross, even when others can’t. So why the imagined portal? Maybe I’m projecting my ideals of the border as its own cultural space—virtually the same on both sides—or maybe a desire for the threshold not to exist at all.

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I pull up to the dirt road parking lot where there are mysterious quartered off sections with barbed wire atop the fences, and a decorated sign that says “Border Field State Park”. As I’m looking more closely at the signs and directions next to the official sign, a woman named Candy approaches and mutters something about wanting to get to the ‘memorial’. I say that I am too, assuming that she means Friendship Park, or if not, that I should find out what she means. We determine that we are each alone, and walk together, eliminating that distinction…. As we approach the historic site on the beach, we can see the thick bars that I’d thought had been taken down years before. We consider going up to them, but there is no one else on the US-side of the gate and there is a Border Patrol car positioned above us, surveying the space….

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We don’t walk up to the thick barriers but instead follow the path to the double-gated entryway to “Friendship Circle”. These gates are  tall and built of unmalleable material. (Although I learn later that sometimes the sand pushes the thick bars apart, which has caused trouble for the border patrol who can’t stop kids from the Mexican side from slipping through and playing with the boundary.) It takes until we cross through the first barrier that the attitude is jovial. There are only two Border Patrol agents there, dressed in green and milling about the crowd, smiling, and answering questions.

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The maximum occupancy for the circle is 25. There are about that many people there, mostly clinging to the gate, trying their best to see through the patchwork of metal and have a semi-private conversation with their family members. There are a few white tourists from Arizona questioning one of the agents. There is a man walking around in a suit who is a reporter from Philadelphia. There is a preacher giving something of a sermon via a faulty microphone. There is a man on the other side with a similar microphone translating.

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Eventually, one of the agents asks me not to shoot video for the ‘privacy’ of the people there.  I stopped filming and asked her who I would talk to about getting legal permissions to film there. She directed me to the other guard, “Agent Alvarado” who was answering questions next to me. Frank has recently taken over the job as ‘park manager’. He told me he had to apply for it, and I tested the waters by asking him why he was interested in the job. He immediately determined himself as ‘a moderate’ and said he wanted to be there so that the park could stay open. He remarked on the uniqueness of the space on the border and kept his comments well-rehearsed and distanced. Upon request, he brought me to Dan’s Jardin Binacional and showed me and Candy the wishing rocks.

It seems like Frank is interested in keeping the space as a portal for good press and set himself out to be accommodating for me and my needs, offering official tours and giving me his business card with a new number scribbled on the side. All this and hunk of metal, too.    

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Candy and I got lost on our way out of Border Field State Park that day, hyper conscious that there were patrol cars around us. We felt unwelcome there, like we were being watched. At this point, it’s hard to imagine getting lost on a walk I’ve taken countless times, but without proper signage, Friendship Park is hard to find. The path on the way there is sandy, muddy, usually flooded, and has all too often discouraged or delayed families. Many then can’t find each other or have physical disabilities that make it virtually impossible to get to Friendship Park during most of the year when the driving road up to the Park is closed. By now, my associations with the park are much more varied–having spent time with new friends like Candy and having been to important and exciting events at the park, my relationship to the space has changed enormously. But there’s nothing quite like first impressions!

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By contrast, I arrived at the Peace Arch Park quite easily. I walked in through the parking lot and saw the open field with a playground to my right as I made a beeline down towards the Arch. On my way, I was impressed by the gardened coves that lined the park. They were beautifully maintained, and by the looks of it, had a lot more funding available to them than our beloved Jardin Binacional. After just a few minutes of walking (as opposed to the half an hour it takes to get to Friendship Park via Border Field State Park), I saw the Arch. In between the two lanes of traffic waiting to go through one custom checkpoint or another was a huge field of grass, with an open Arch in the middle. Both US and Canadian flags were waving on top, and just underneath, inscriptions of “Children of a Common Mother” and “Bretheren Dwelling Together in Unity” stood boldly affirming the nations’ shared heritage.

I walked around the arch a bit, taking note of the tourists who were there, which side they came from, etc. The field where the arch stands is open to both sides, so people can interact freely. On either side of the field, border-crossers waited in their cars to get to customs.

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I sat in the center of this Peace Arch, next to the words “May These Gates Never Be Closed”, and thought about what its like to sit on the edge of an idea as big and as small as a country. I faced forward into the US, looking at the customs checkpoint, and the walls around me waved like water, as if even the solidity of the concrete law or concrete wall is flexible. Even if boundaries exist, they crash in and out of focus and move when we aren’t quite looking.

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I walked back through the first part of the park afterwards to see what the edge of the countries looked like aside from the arch. At first I thought I saw a small fence through the wide area, but then it was actually open to the residential street in Canada beyond. The open border ran along the north side of the park, so that the park is technically in US territory, although without much of a physical separation between. There was a small plaque every 50 yards that said “Leaving US Border” on one side. I walked around one of them, anticipating similar writing on the other side, and found that the sign facing Canadians walking into the park in the US only said, “Keep dogs on leash”. Given that at Friendship Park, the security is so incredible that you are only able to stick a small finger through the wall, you can understand my amusement at this concept.

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Although the park at the Peace Arch is relatively open, there is still a border patrol agent on duty and regulations that need to be followed. To understand them better, I asked the agent on guard if people from el otro lado were allowed to cross, since there was no fence. He said yes, that people on the Canadian side were allowed in the park but couldn’t leave out into the US side. I asked how they determined that, and basically one or two agents sit there and watch people come and go, everyday from 8 to dusk (as opposed to the 8 hours per week that Friendship Park is open). If the agents don’t recognize someone leaving the park into the US side as someone that came from that side, they stop and search them. People from either side are welcome to use the park, but people on the Canadian side are not allowed to exit the park as an entryway to the US. The agents apparently also switch out regularly so as not to make “affinities” with those who frequent the space. The agent I talked to then volunteered his opinion that “this park is a bad idea” because there have been a few people–“bad ones”–who sneak through. The emphasis on the word “bad” leads me to believe he doesn’t just mean they’re “bad” because they’re rule-breakers, but because of some other unspoken reason.  I asked him if they usually catch them [does this type of surveillance system work?] and he said “Yeah, usually we do”.

Of course, where there is a loophole, occasionally there will be people trying to take advantage of the situation. From the sounds of it, this is a small minority of the people who use the park, but it helps perpetuate unreasonable fear and distrust along border lines. I saw something in the news the other day about one of the presidential candidates suggesting that we put a wall up on the Canadian border. Having been to this peaceful location, I can’t help but wonder what type of threat this open border is permitting, or what national ideal we would be protecting.

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But on the whole, this park shows that not only is an open border park possible; it’s already happening! Border Patrol Agents are able to staff this space with much more time, fewer agents, and hardly any external structures. If we were able to duplicate something like this at Friendship Park in San Diego/Tijuana, the familial reunions and gatherings for friends would be that much more beautiful. The next question is, why not? Although many of the arguments here may be insensitive, it is also important to consider what practical difficulties we might face if we are able to make this open border park a reality.

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Much of this post was written to describe the Peach Arch Park as a model for Friendship Park. As we move towards imagining the future of Friendship Park, it is imperative to collaborate and share our stories. Do you have a border story, or memorable first experience with the border? Send me an email! Please feel comfortable writing in Spanish, English, or Spanglish. emily@marginalgapfilms.com

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