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To call or not to call: New Canadian border rules confuse boaters on the St. Lawrence

Dennis McCarthy
Canadian Border regulations say boaters crossing into foriegn waters must call in right away, even if they aren't setting foot on land.

If you cross the international border between the U.S. and Canada by land, there’s an official border crossing.

But if you're traveling across the border on a boat in the St. Lawrence River, the process isn’t so clear.

The border  splits the river, threading through the Thousand Islands.

For over a century, this was a “soft” border, barely acknowledged by generations of boaters.

That changed with the September 11 terrorist attacks. But hardening this border is tricky, and the effort has produced a set of confusing rules and practices.  Boaters say this year is worse than ever..

It all started with a meeting at the Antique Boat museum in Clayton on a Saturday in June. Here’s a report from Channel 7 News in Watertown:

"Canadian and U.S. officials met with boaters to tell them the new rules for crossing by water between the two countries. The meeting left many people upset."

The Canadian border agents made it clear that if  American boats  are weaving back and forth across the border, they have to call the Canadian Border Services Agency the moment they cross into Canadian waters. Even if they never set foot on Canadian land.  This upset people. Assemblywoman Addie Russell showed a lot of frustration with the new regulation.

Pat Simpson was as that meeting with border agents. He summers on his houseboat in Alexandria Bay with his wife, who’s Canadian.

“So half my family is in Canada and we travel over there by car and by boat.”

Simpson was mayor of Alex Bay for seven years, so he figures he knows a bit about the rules.  He says he’d never heard of this new one that says you have to stop your boat and call on your cell phone to Canada the first time you cross the border.  Simpson admits he hasn’t bothered to make that call. And he weaves back and forth between the islands on both sides of the border a lot.

“I haven’t done it because a lot of people have told me we don’t have to call in,” Simpson said.

This is where it gets confusing. The word on what American boaters are supposed to do changes, depending on who you ask.  Boaters who’ve called in have been told by Canadian border agents that they don’t have to call in.

Take Ken Federici for example. He was in Alex Bay one weekend in July. He was planning on sightseeing on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence. So he spoke to a Canadian agent before he went out.

“He asked are you going to be anchoring. I said no. Are you going to be fishing? I said no. And I told him I don’t plan on setting foot on Canadian soil.”

Federici says the agent told him he didn't have to call in.  He was confused.  Federici had heard everywhere that boaters who cross into Canadian waters have to call in right away. So, why did this agent tell Federici he didn’t?

So I called the Canadian Border Agency myself. I asked the agent on the phone what should an American do when they cross into Canadian waters on their boat?

“For people who do not intend to land on Canadian soil but may have crossed the water while cruising they can use their cell phone to report their presence in Canadian waters," said the agent.

I asked the agent why he thought other boaters had been hearing from other agents over the phone that calling in wasn't necessary.

“You know what? I don’t know why they would provide that answer.”

I called the agency back later to talk to someone else. I told this agent I was planning to be on a boat that afternoon. But I added a little something else. I told him  I'd be stopping my boat for a swim. A pretty typical  boat ride, and that prompted a totally different response:

“Basically, If you’re in transit from one point in the United States to another point in the U.S. you just go straight through Canadian waters, you don’t stop or swim or do anything. You just go from point A to point B, you don’t have to report.  If you stop to do anything along the way, fish, swim, you do have to call."

So to recap, this agent says boaters must call Canada only if they stop – even to swim -- in Canadian waters. Still, its not clear if this is the definitive rule. And these subtle differences in interpretation are important. Canada can seize the boat and impose a large fine if someone breaks the rules.

Doug McCleland says all this confusion is ridiculous. He’s Canadian and owns an island on the river. He says he’s seen fewer boaters on the river every year.

“And the talk is if you’re at a cocktail party or having a coffee with someone it invariably comes around to these silly rules that are confusing and make it more difficult for everybody,” McCleland says.

McCleland  presented a petition on behalf of the Thousand Islands association to Gord Brown, the local member of Canadian Parliament,  demanding the U.S. and everyone in the Canadian Border Agency be on the same page. McCleland says Americans who signed the petition left comments.

“The message is very clear from Americans..coming to Canada is simply not worth the hassle.”

So far this season, no American boats have been seized. And no boaters have been fined.

For a map of border crossing sites along the St. Lawrence River and more information click here.