Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau once said that living next to the United States is like sleeping with an elephant.

Fort Kent native Lisa Lavoie, after completing a master’s thesis on her borderland community, concluded that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, woke up the elephant.

“Since 9/11, the people living in the Fort Kent-Clair borderlands have experienced a sea change in their habitual and casual border crossing,” Lavoie writes in the introduction to the thesis she defended on April 20.

“The United States transformed a border that had been essentially a non-entity for 200 years into a barrier as a response to real or perceived threats to the country after 9/11.”

Lavoie’s research documents the emergence of a “psychological border” within the communities on either side, coupled with a significant decrease in car traffic passing into Fort Kent from Clair, New Brunswick, since 2001.

Yet, even though militarization of the border has altered connections between Fort Kent and Clair, Lavoie found that the affinity of the bi-national towns, rooted in their Acadian and French Canadian heritage, has endured.

A 1983 graduate of Fort Kent Community High School, Lavoie received a bachelor of arts degree in English with a minor in behavioral science from the University of Maine at Fort Kent in 2007. She had dreamed of earning an advanced degree, but with a full-time job and occasional teaching responsibilities in the arts and sciences division at UMFK, she needed a program she could pursue from a distance.

In 2011, after her daughter had completed her biomedical science degree at the University of New England and entered physician assistant school, Lavoie thought, “My time has come.”

She enrolled at the University of Maine in Orono in a master’s degree program in interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in Maine studies.

“The opportunity [distance learning] presents for those of us in the north country is amazing,” Lavoie said in a phone interview last week. She took one course per semester beginning in September 2011. After two compressed-video and four online courses, plus four one-on-one directed studies, she devoted the summer of 2104 to interviews and the fall semester to writing.

Lavoie’s topic evolved from her perception of the St. John Valley after living six years in southern Maine.

“I didn’t realize how unique we were,” she said. At first she wanted to focus on what it means to be Acadian and French Canadian. Then she expanded her research to include what it means to live on the border.

When her adviser, Carol Toner, suggested she incorporate the effects of 9/11 on the communities of Fort Kent and Clair, the topic began to take shape.

“Borders are human constructs. They often don’t make any sense, especially the Canadian-American border,” Lavoie said, citing the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty that made the St. John River the international boundary.

“An area that was one people was unceremoniously divided, but the people went about their business,” she said, describing decades of easy flow back and forth with friendly exchanges at border stations as residents of Fort Kent and Clair maintained family and business relations.

“After 9/11, that came to a grinding halt,” she said. Her interviews with townspeople, a retired Customs and Border Protection officer and town managers on both sides of the border led her to conclude that post-9/11 militarization of the United States side of the border has affected the neighboring communities more than the Webster-Ashburton Treaty.

“9/11 has altered relations between Canada and the U.S. more than anything else in the 20th century,” she said, citing work by historians Victor Konrad and Heather Nichol.

“It’s not unique to Fort Kent,” she added. When she mentions her research topic to Valley residents, the common response is, “Do I have a story for you.”

Her own experience returning to the U.S., after conducting an interview in New Brunswick last summer, resembled those of others who reported bellicose attitudes, indiscriminate searches and long waits, as well as the intimidating effects of “immense signage,” visible flak jackets and weapons.

“Put it in park,” were the first words of the U. S. Customs and Border Protection agent who greeted Lavoie in Fort Kent after her interview with the mayor of Clair.

“Pop the trunk,” came next. After a cursory search, the rubber-gloved agent returned her passport without a smile.

“It was totally different from Clair,” she said, comparing her earlier crossing into Canada. “I felt as though I had done something wrong.”

Such experiences create what researchers call a “psychological border” that prevents people from crossing because of the anxiety and unpredictability associated with the trip, Lavoie wrote. She found tangible evidence of such avoidance in U.S. Bureau of Transportation records showing a gradual decline in the number of passenger cars entering the U.S. at Fort Kent each year from 300,008 in 2001 to 199,730 in 2013.

Retired CBP officer Bill Melvin attributed the “we’re-in-charge-here” attitude to academy training programs. “The officers coming out of the academies post-9/11 were very enthusiastic,” he told Lavoie. “They had joined to try to do something and when they came out of the academy they were prepared to look for the worst in people. Maybe it takes a few years of knowing or dealing with the public to realize these people have legitimate reasons for crossing the border.”

He said post-9/11 directives require officers to ask every passenger to state citizenship, even though “you know the people, you know their children, you know their grandchildren, you know their routines … you know it’s Sunday and they spend Sunday with memere and they are coming to visit memere.”

Border agents also are required to demand passports of passengers entering the United States, following full implementation of the Western Hemisphere Transport Initiative in 2009. Only five states, not including Maine, honor an enhanced driver’s license in lieu of a passport.

Yet, even with challenges imposed at the border, Lavoie affirms that cultural unity spans the St. John River, keeping the borderland communities on both sides connected and close.

“We still have a commonality,” she said. “It has been altered, but it endures. The French heritage we share is not going to go away soon.”

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.