Archive for March, 2014|Monthly archive page

South of the Border

“Um. Do you accept American money?” I asked, hopefully. I was at my local convenience store, trying – somewhat unsuccessfully – to buy a carton of milk. My lack of success was due to only having 25c in Canadian money on me, and a debit card that was not-very-helpfully sitting on the kitchen counter at home. On the other hand, I had almost $100 in US cash in my wallet, left over from my last trip to Washington. Reluctant to head home to pick up my debit card, I decided to see how open the store was to foreign currency. Very open, it turns out. They even asked if I wanted my change in US money (I didn’t).

A few days later I was in the US, and the situation was reversed. Throwing it out there, I asked if the store accepted money with hockey players on it. They did.

This is odd to me. I grew up in New Zealand, a remote island separated from the rest of the world by a rather large ocean. Visiting another country involved booking airplane flights and arranging visas. It wasn’t the sort of thing you could do on a whim. Yet here in Vancouver, only half an hour away from the states, travel between the two countries is so easy and popular that the currency is – as I discovered – becoming interchangeable in many places. We can decide Saturday night to go to the US for a day of skiing, and the most planning it takes is throwing our passports in with our skis.

Of course, in the last eighteen months next door to the US, I’ve learned there’s more to living in a border town than just last-minute ski trips and never having the right money in your wallet.

There’s also smuggling.

It’s commonly known that Americans like to head to Mexico to shop, drawn by the low prices afforded by minimal taxes and cheaper labour. What’s not so well-known is that Canadians do exactly the same thing in the US.

Canadians pay a lot of taxes; particularly on alcohol, petrol, and – for some reason – dairy products. We don’t complain* because it goes to things like free health care. The US, on the other hand, has low taxes and a lower minimum wage, making it an appealing destination to go to fill up the car, buy a six-pack of beer, or purchase a new ski rack. All things we’re technically supposed to declare when passing back over to CanukLand, but which we often neglect to mention.

The Americans have embraced this, and directly south of any BC border, you’ll find a town almost designed for Canadian visitors, with liquor stores and petrol stations as far as the eye can see.

Of these, my favourite is the oddity that is Point Roberts.

Point Roberts is a cartographical error. A mishap from a time when the boundary between the United States and Canada was drawn by someone with a ruler and a not-very-detailed map of the area

The west coast is lacking a few details

Like this one

The US / Canadian border runs, for the most part, along the 49th parallel, a demarcation determined by treaty in 1846. While this is generally well and good, at that time, cartographers were still figuring out how to get past all the bears and mountains that lay between them and the West Coast, so maps of the local area were a tad rough, to say the least. Unfortunately, this meant that no one noticed that the new border chopped off the tip of a peninsula, one that lies beneath the 49th parallel, but whose only land access to the US is through Canada.

Point Roberts

You see the problem.

This became Point Roberts, a tiny patch of Washington state just twelve square kilometres in size, and home to a thousand US citizens, all of whom need to pass through two international borders to get to anywhere else in the US by land. As it’s so small, there’s no hospital or secondary school here – anyone requiring medical care or a higher education needs to go to Blaine, a forty minute drive away, through Canada. It’s definitely not somewhere to live without a passport.

In fact, it’s such an odd place to live that the locals have a saying – “We’re all here because we’re not all there.”

But this strange town, perched precariously on the tip of a Vancouver suburb, has embraced its unique location. It has five petrol stations crammed into its three streets – and if there was any doubt about who their market is, their petrol prices are advertised in litres, not gallons.

But where Point Roberts has really found its calling is in its postal receiving system.

Shipping something from an American online retailer to a US address is cheap and quick, often with free overnight shipping. Ship something to a Canadian address, on the other hand, and you’re suddenly looking at up to $20 in shipping fees and a turn-around time of several weeks. To make matters worse, once the goods do finally arrive, Canadians can then be hit with hefty import and sales taxes at the border.

Point Roberts, however – even though it’s located off Vancouver – is technically part of Washington. Sensing an opportunity, the inhabitants have opened up multiple “postal receiving” companies, places that Canadians can ship goods to, before collecting them at their convenience and taking them over the border, stuffed out of sight underneath the passenger seat of their car.

Of course, this is actually smuggling – another law that Vancouverites tend to have a meh approach to obeying.

The businesses in question have no delusions about who their customers are, or what they’re up to. Heck, the package receiving company I visited (purely for research, ahem) even had a set-up to help customers dispose of the packaging.

Of course, the border guards know exactly what’s going on. After all, the kilometre long line of cars waiting to cross the border didn’t all come down for the ocean views. When I headed back to Canada, I had the following exchange with the Canadian border guard:

GUARD: “Are you bringing anything new back from Point Roberts?”
ME: “No.”
GUARD: “Okay,” (fills in some paperwork). “So what is the value of the goods you’re bringing back?”
ME: “I’m not bringing any goods back”
GUARD: “Uh-huh,” (does more paperwork). “Are the goods new?”
ME: “Seriously, there’s no goods”
GUARD: “Okay, well, have a good day then”

He didn’t actually believe me, he just didn’t care enough to really push the issue. I got the feeling he had pretty much the same conversation for eight hours every day.

As it turns out, the practice of having a postal receiving box in Point Roberts is so widespread, even the US Consulate has one. It’s nice to think of the US Consulate smuggling Ebay purchases into Canada.

But, apart from the abundance of petrol stations and shipping companies, Point Roberts is actually quite a nice little town. It has several lovely hiking trails, beaches to picnic on, and plentiful wildlife, including seals and bald eagles. In summer, orcas are visible from land. It is a place that deserves visitors for more than just tax-free shipping.

I’m not sure why Point Roberts is still American, or why the US and Canadian governments staff a full-time border for an exclave of only a thousand people. In the past, there had been talk of the town becoming Canadian, but those talks never got very far, and now it seems that everyone kinda likes how things have worked out.

Point Roberts, that weird, wonderful little town hanging off of Vancouver, seems to have found its niche in the world. And that niche is filled with cheap shipping and low-taxed fuel for Canadians.


*We complain. All the time. Then we go to the US and stock up on cheap alcohol.


Canadian money. Not helping the stereotypes

Canadian money. Not helping the stereotype



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