Over the Borderline: The Little Bit of Minnesota That Could Have Gone Canadian

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If you look at a map of North America, you’ll notice that the Canada–United States border is strikingly straight from the Pacific Ocean to about a third of the way across Minnesota, where it hiccups and then squiggles the rest of the way to the Atlantic Ocean. The border first started to get worked out between the U.S. and Great Britain (Canada wasn't an independent country until after most of the border was laid down) not long after the American Revolution, and was updated and amended in a series of treaties over the next few decades.

Some parts were easy to work out: that straight line just runs along the 49th parallel. In other parts, the American and British negotiators got a little fancy. Around Minnesota, they established the border as extending from the northwesternmost point of the Lake of the Woods due west to the head of the Mississippi River.

All well and good, except that the source of the Mississippi River, Lake Itasca, was farther south than where they'd expected it to be, and couldn’t be intersected by a line running west from the Lake of the Woods. (Misplacing the Mississippi was a blunder, yes, but the map they were working with, drawn by doctor and botanist John Mitchell in 1750, was the most comprehensive map of eastern North America from that era. With a lesser map, things might have been even worse, and the Mitchell map was used for settling US-Canadian border disputes well into the 20th century.)

A survey team was sent to the area to correct the error and finish establishing the border by connecting the northwesternmost point of the lake directly to the 49th parallel. When the team located the northwest point, the direct north-south line they drew to the 49th intersected a little chunk of land belonging to the U.S. and a bay belonging to Canada, cutting the American land off from the rest of the country and leaving it dangling in the breeze.

Life in the Angle

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This is the Northwest Angle and Islands, a small Minnesota exclave hanging off of Manitoba on the Lake of the Woods. Most of Angle Township’s 596.3 square miles is made up of water. The remaining 123 square miles of land (mostly uninhabited and held in trust by the Red Lake Indian Reservation) are home to 152 Minnesotans who have the honor of living at the northernmost point of the contiguous U.S.

If you want to visit the Angle now, you’ll need to drive up through Minnesota to the Canadian border and then, ignoring the little part of your brain that logically demands you stay in the United States to visit a Minnesota town, cross into Manitoba and go through Canadian customs. You’ll pass a few border towns, hang a right after Moose Lake, and continue along several kilometers of unpaved road before crossing another border back into the United States. Here, you’ll need to go through customs again, though it's a little different from the first time. At the intersection of two gravel roads a few miles past the border crossing is a place called Jim’s Corner, where you’ll stop, go into the shack on the side of the road, and call a U.S. Customs agent via videophone to make your declarations. If you don’t want to make the road trip through Canada, you can also reach the Angle from the rest of Minnesota by crossing the Lake of the Woods by plane, boat, or, when the lake is frozen over, car.

A little ways past Jim’s Corner, you’ll find the Angle Inlet School, the last one-room schoolhouse in the state. Since 1985, the school’s class has been taught by Linda Kastl and has fluctuated in size between five and 16 students. For a few years in the 1990s, the school closed because the enrollment was too low. Farther down the road, you’ll find the police station and Bob Nunn, the township’s lone cop.

At the edge of the Angle is the Lake of the Woods—and some of the best walleye fishing spots in North America. Fishing is what sustains tourism, the local economy, and the livelihood of most everyone living in the Angle, and a problem with fishing is what kicked into motion a half-serious attempt at secession during late 1990s.

The Walleye Problem

It started like this: Ontario, which shares a border with Minnesota that runs through the Lake of the Woods, was happy to let people staying at Angle resorts fish in Canadian waters, but imposed high fees, catch-and-release regulations, and loads of paperwork on them. Fishermen who stayed at Canadian resorts on the lake, on the other hand, had a much easier time getting licensed, getting out on the water, and keeping more of their catch. Resort occupancy in the Angle dropped off, restaurants were empty night after night, and fishing guides sat at the dock all day.

Angle residents and business owners cried foul to the federal government, calling Ontario’s fishing regulations discriminatory. Their complaints went largely ignored until 1997, when U.S. Representative Collin Peterson, of Minnesota’s Seventh District, proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow the residents of the Angle to vote on seceding from the United States and joining Canada.

For the next few days after that, the little town was a media circus. Finally, people were paying attention. It became clear from the sound bites provided by the locals on the evening news that they didn’t really want to secede, but they knew that throwing that word around would finally get someone to do something about their walleye problem. That someone turned out to be Jim Southwick, a Minneapolis-based attorney who had worked as the U.S. Trade Representative lawyer on NAFTA issues. Southwick saw the Canadian fishing regulations as a clear NAFTA violation and, with the help of the Minnesota Commissioner of Trade and Economic Development, the Chief of Fisheries, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and others in Governor Jesse Ventura’s administration, quickly got the Canadians to revoke their regulations.

Sport fishermen began to return to the Angle, filling the lodges and restaurants and rental boats and keeping their whole catch, no matter which side of the lake they were on. The locals, flush with cash from renewed business and still a little high from their moment in the spotlight, had just one loose end to finally tie up: Apologizing profusely to local Red Lake chief Bobby Whitefeather, whose tribe owns the lion’s share of the Angle’s land, but who was not consulted about whether or not he and the tribe wanted to go Canuck.

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January 2, 2013 - 9:00am
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