Canadians are scared and unhappy about American Coast Guard patrols now routinely shooting thousands of rounds of lead ammunition in zones the American forces have designated for anti-terrorist drills. The new patrols, which are heavily armed and using the Lakes for target practice, were not seen as a great danger until they announced the formation of 34 zones of fire and a continuing program on the Lakes.
Environmentalists and lake-shore residents are unhappy about the perceived danger to pleasure boaters and the danger of so much lead being wantonly deposited in a body of water where environmentalists have worked for years to remove lead contamination. There are 40 million persons who take their drinking water from the Lakes.
Canadians are also astounded that the American military is flexing its might along what has been called "the longest, undefended border…" Mike Bradley, mayor of Sarnia, Ontario, wrote to the Prime Minister in complaint, saying “The longest undefended border in the world is gone. It's passé. And this is an example of it.”
The mayor of Toronto, David Miller, who works with a coalition to protect the Great Lakes, wrote to the Canadian Prime Minister requesting assistance. He said, in part, "At a time… when there is interest in restoring the integrity of the lakes, it is most disturbing that the U.S. is contemplating exercises that will militarize the lakes, cause pollution and environmental degradation, restrict shipping and recreation, and change the peaceful border between Canada and the U.S.”
Far more people are killed on Toronto streets by illegal U.S. guns crossing the border than bloody-minded terrorists from Canada crossing south. The idea that terrorists are flooding across the Great Lakes is utter nonsense.
The Coast Guard proclaimed that machine guns on its patrol boats do not break the treaty that was signed after the War of 1812, which has helped guarantee almost 200 years of peace between the two countries.
Even the most paranoid Americans hiding under their collective bed from the onslaught of terrorist hordes are probably not really afraid that disaffected Canadians are going to storm the northern frontier to take over America. Canadian dollars may not quite equal US dollars in value (so far) but the idea of hordes of Canadians coming to America to take jobs and change the foundation of our culture seems, perhaps, a little far-fetched.
The fear of terrorist cadres from increasingly sophisticated, well-supported terrorist operatives will use the long border to sneak into America is possible. But the thought ignores a whole lifetime of movies about the Mounties, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Didn't anyone tell those Bushists that the Mounties always get their man? They are true-blue (albeit redcoats), resourceful and perservering. We all know that. Sometimes they sing — which I hate — and sound a lot like Nelson Eddy. They put the Boy Scouts to shame. Who are we to doubt they are better protection on the Canadian side of the border than the fumble-fingered, frontier fighters of the Border Patrol are on our own?
How many countries can we alienate? How many societies can we insult? How many lakes can we shoot at without looking just a little silly?
It should be noted that the USCG has attempted to calm the situation. Chief Petty Officer Rober Lanier tried to answer concerns with the statement, "I don't know what it is, but I know I want to be prepared for it when it happens. We need to conduct these live-fire exercises so we are prepared for whatever it may be. If we are not prepared for it, there are going to be questions about why we weren't prepared for it."
To date the Coast Guard has run its live-fire practice maneuvers without injury or obvious damage to passing pleasure craft. They promised to make marine radio broadcasts beginning hours before their firing commences and will have another craft patrolling the area around the zone of fire.
This promise has not quieted opposition leaders who know that many small boats do not have marine radios, don't use them or will just wander into the firing ranges which, wet as are the Lakes, will not be marked. Others are concerned about the results of introducing thousands of rounds of lead bullets into the ecological system. During the past few years there has been a campaign to further reduce lead levels in the Lakes. Environmentalists had been trying to get fishermen to replace their lead sinkers and efforts to ban lead paint.
I found some pertinent information using the wonderful Canadian website that presents a huge number of Canada-US treaties. (The site "is the result of the cooperation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, [Government of Canada] the Library of International Relations [Chicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois Institute of Technology], and the LexUM (Centre de recherche en droit public, Faculté de droit, Université de Montréal".) In it I found this exchange regarding the Rush-Bagot Agreement of 1817, which took place in 1940,
- In a confidential letter addressed to the Secretary of State on January 31, 1939, Admiral Leahy, the Acting Secretary of the Navy, raised certain questions regarding the Rush-Bagot Agreement of 1817. Among other things, Admiral Leahy requested the views of Mr. Hull concerning the mounting of two 4-inch guns on each of the American naval vessels on the Great Lakes, to be used in firing target practice in connection with the training of naval reserves. He inquired, if this was considered improper, concerning the possibility of modifying the Rush-Bagot Agreement to permit this practice. After careful consideration of the problem, Mr. Hull is inclined to the opinion that a modification of the Rush-Bagot Agreement would be undesirable at this time… From a naval standpoint, its provisions have long been out of date, but in spite of numerous vicissitudes the Agreement itself has survived unchanged for more than one hundred and twenty years and, with the passage of time, has assumed a symbolic importance in the eyes of our own and Canadian citizens.
The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson did explain that Canada and the U.S. had signed a written agreement three years ago that allows light machine guns to be used on the lake without abrogating the treaty. They said that the treaty had been made to forbid heavy armament on the lakes such as cannon ("weapons of war") on sailing ships.
The Coast Guard spokesman, CPO Lanier, replied with, I sincerely hope, some degree of humour, “We don't have any cannons or rocket launchers or anything like that.”
Whether or not the Bush Administration is acting in such a way as to alienate most of the world — even our neighbor and ally, Canada — does not affect the fact of self-less bravery in peace and war on the part of the US Coast Guard. Bad decisions are made at different levels of the military and the government. So be it. The Coast Guard continues its duties of rescue and patrol. Just watch The Perfect Storm again to be reminded of their constant heroism.
Photograph ©Beringer-Dratch of a USCG patrol in Miami harbor, Florida.