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“Canadians are like Vikings:” the ridiculous Canada-America border dispute

Maine Marine patrolmen near Machias Seal Island.
Maine Marine patrolmen near Machias Seal Island.
(Keith Bedford/Boston Globe/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Did you know that there's a small but contentious border dispute between the United States and Canada — over which actual people have gotten hurt?

Well, now you do.

Writing in Maclean's, Zane Schwartz introduces us to the North Rock and Machias Seal Islands, teeny little places between Maine and New Brunswick. Both the US and Canada claim the water around them, which are valuable for lobster fishing. According to Schwartz, high lobster prices this year mean that American and Canadian lobster fishermen are getting unusually aggressive, violating rules that have kept the peace since 1783. The whole thing sounds nuts:

"Somebody is going to get killed. We've had bad years in the past and got lucky, but this is the worst year I've ever seen," says American John Drouin, chair of the Maine Lobster Zone Council district in charge of the grey zone. Drouin fears things are even more dangerous than they were eight years ago, when Maine lobsterman Patrick Feeney had his thumb ripped off. It got caught as he was trying to free his equipment while jostling with a Canadian for territory. Laurence Cook, chair of the Grand Manan Fishermen's Association's committee in charge of the grey zone, echoes Drouin's sentiment. "You can work with some people, but there are assholes on both sides of the border who take things too far," says Cook, who received a death threat in 2002.

The article is full of amazing quotes (for example, "Canadians are like Vikings. They'll rape and pillage and not give a shit."). But what's really interesting is the way the American and Canadian government officials talk about the dispute. You read their statements to centuries-old claims of control, and it sounds like something out of an Israel-Palestine debate:

Both the [Canadian] Department of Foreign Affairs and the US State Department are quick to assert their claim to the disputed islands. "Canada's sovereignty over the area has a strong foundation in international law, stemming from 1621," says Nicolas Doire, a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs. His sentiments are echoed by Katherine Pfaff, spokesperson for the US State Department: "Our long-standing position is that the Machias Seal Island belongs to the United States by virtue of the 1783 Treaty of Peace." When asked what their countries were doing to actually resolve the conflict, neither offered an answer.

Obviously the chances of any actual US-Canada conflict over this are nil. There are many reasons for this — friendly relations, shared values, very low stakes — but it's worth pausing to appreciate why this dispute is so peaceful that you've likely never even heard of it.

Border disputes, after all, are not just about whether two countries have mutually exclusive claims to the same land (or water). They're about the ability of the respective governments to work together, their interest in compromise, and trust in some kind of process for resolving disputes short of open conflict.

The US and Canada have an easy time with those things. But they're much harder for China and Japan in the East China Sea, for example, and seemingly impossible for Israelis and Palestinians.