To reach this Canadian island, mail crosses through Maine. Now US agents are opening it.
By AMANDA COLETTA | Special To The Washington Post | Published: December 7, 2019
The parcel was sent from Niagara, Ontario, shipped via Canada Post, and addressed to Campobello Island, New Brunswick.
But when it arrived at Dale Calder's home, he found it had been opened by agents of a foreign government.
"EXAMINED BY U.S. CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION," read the bright green tape that now resealed the package.
Campobello Island, a 15-square-mile outpost of some 900 souls, hangs low off the Maine coast, closer to the United States than to Canada. During the summer, a ferry connects the community to the rest of New Brunswick. But the rest of the year, the only way anyone or anything gets on or off the island is a bridge to Lubec, Maine.
For islanders, it's part of daily life: To visit their doctor, buy their groceries, even gas up their cars, they must travel to a foreign country. But in recent months, islanders say, U.S. border officials have added a disturbing new wrinkle: They're opening the mail.
"I was not very happy," said Calder, a retired Canadian government official who lives on the island year-round. "It's just one more thing on the heads of the people."
Postmistress Kathleen Case says CBP agents are opening the mail daily. Some days, it's every item; others, they're more selective. Caught in the sweep: everything from hair scrunchies to prescription drugs.
Some islanders are nonplussed. Some are irritated. Justin Tinker is concerned.
Tinker, a civil engineer who's had mail opened, worries that U.S. agents might find health records indicating that islanders have been prescribed medical marijuana or received psychiatric treatment - and then deem the recipients inadmissible to the United States.
"Just like that," he said, "Campobello is your very own Alcatraz."
So what has sparked the sudden interest in the islanders' mail? A CBP spokesman said there has been "no directive to change procedure."
"CBP officers possess broad search authority to ensure the safety and admissibility of all goods entering the United States," spokesman Michael McCarthy said in a statement. "That includes the ability to inspect and search all persons, baggage and merchandise arriving in - and transiting through - the United States."
Some islanders think they've found an explanation: cannabis. Though it's been legal for recreational use in Maine since 2016 and in Canada since 2018, U.S. federal law bans possession, and both countries prohibit moving it across the border.
But that explanation raises more questions: Why start rooting through the mail now, a year after legalization in Canada? Why didn't Canadian authorities anticipate that Campobello Islanders might encounter this problem in the run-up to legalization?
Marie-Andrée Bolduc, a spokeswoman for New Brunswick's government-run cannabis retailer, says officials suspended shipments to Campobello in mid-September, after it learned packages were being opened. She says they're working on a solution.
Canada Post trucks bound for Campobello leave the country at St. Stephen, New Brunswick, and enter the United States at Calais, Maine. They travel 46 miles through Maine before reaching Lubec, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Bridge and the island.
It's in Calais that U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents are inspecting the mail.
Calder is familiar with customs - before he retired 14 years ago, he was a superintendent with the Canada Border Services Agency. By his tally, he's found the green tape on at least a half-dozen packages since September.
"Some days, I'll get a couple of packages and one is open and another isn't," he said. "There's no rhyme or reason."
Shipments to the island's pharmacy have not been immune.
"We've never really had this issue before," said pharmacist Gareth Smith, who has worked on Campobello for a decade. "It doesn't matter whether it's a narcotic or a controlled substance or just a regular prescription medication. They just open it and seal it back up."
He wonders how long it takes agents to search a mail truck. Some medications must be stored in time- and temperature-sensitive conditions to maintain their integrity.
Jon Hamilton, a spokesman for Canada Post, says CBP agents have the right to stop and search any vehicle at the U.S. border. He says his agency is discussing the matter with CBP.
Islander Steve Hatch has filed a formal complaint with Canada Post. He says officials told him they had ruled out mail delivery by drone. He thinks the solution might be a boat.
For now, Canada Post is sticking with trucks.
"With ferry service operating three months a year and challenging conditions, ground transportation remains the best method to ensure timely and consistent service to the residents of Campobello Island year-round," Hamilton said. "We continue to evaluate our approach to ensure we are providing the best service possible for the residents of the island."
The summer ferry connects Campobello to nearby Deer Island and the village of L'Etete on mainland New Brunswick. For the rest of the year, the bridge to Maine is the only way to reach the rest of Canada - or a supermarket, mall, bank, hospital or movie theater.
Islanders have clamored for a year-round ferry for decades, without success.
"We live in a certain area where Border Patrol is part of life," said Brett Newman, Campobello's mayor. "But I will admit it's becoming a bit much recently with the opening of our mail becoming more and more common."
Islanders remember when crossing the border required nothing more than a hello and a wave. Ties between Campobello and Maine run deep: Neighbors play beer league hockey together, marry each other and respond to one another's emergencies.
The two countries jointly administer Roosevelt Campobello International Park. A young Franklin Roosevelt visited the island with his parents and took a shine to it; he later spent summers with his wife and children at their 34-room "cottage." (It's where he was diagnosed with polio.)
But the border also causes headaches. Grocery-shopping in mainland New Brunswick? Avocados, bell peppers, tomatoes and citrus fruit are just some of the items banned at the border. Calder says some companies won't install satellite television dishes, for instance, unless they can travel to Campobello by ferry.
It's an old problem. In 1981, Maclean's magazine reported that islanders staged a six-hour protest on the bridge after a "crackdown" by Canadian officials, who were searching "cars and pocketbooks" and "turning back American repairmen answering calls to the island."
Ahead of a provincial election in 2018, Elections New Brunswick chartered a boat to carry ballots, laptops and a tabulation machine from the mainland to the island.
Agency spokesman Paul Harpelle said there had never been problems at the border. The boat was a "preemptive measure," he said, to avoid "any potential delay that could potentially then impact voting opportunities." Elections Canada did not repeat the exercise for October's federal election.
Some islanders say CBP agents are just doing their job. They blame the Canadian government for failing to help.
"Trying to balance the needs of an island with the security needs of a nation, the nation is going to win out every time," Tinker said. "There's a frustration on the island that the government has not stepped up to the plate and admitted that there's a problem."
Newman, the mayor, hopes the federal government steps in soon.
"I wouldn't trade living in Campobello for any other place in the world, and think Maine makes a terrific neighbor," he said. "But it would be nice to know our residents receive their daily mail with the same level of privacy as each and every other Canadian."
Case, the postmistress, remembers two other times U.S. agents opened the mail. Both were more than a decade ago, she says, and not for this long.
Calder remembers one of those times, too. It was a few years before he retired. Officials from Canada's Border Services Agency met with their U.S. counterparts.
The Canadians told the Americans they understood U.S. agents had the right to examine everything that crossed the border, Calder said. And then they threatened to open every package that traveled overland from the Lower 48 to Alaska.
"They stopped immediately," he recalled. "But of course, that was prior to 9/11 . . .
"It's been absolutely crazy since then."