On June 13, 2010, the annual Peace Arch celebration, known informally as "Hands Across the Border," returns to Peace Arch Park (located on the U.S.-Canadian border between Blaine, Washington, and Douglas, British Columbia) after a two-year hiatus. Held annually most years since 1937, the celebration brings thousands of Americans and Canadians together to celebrate the friendship between the two countries and to promote peace.A Joint Celebration
The Peace Arch celebration began in 1937 as a joint U.S.-Canadian Armistice Day celebration, marking the end of what was then often referred to as the Great War (World War I) on November 11, 1918. Many of the events held in the original celebration on November 11, 1937, are still held today (2010). The celebration starts with a parade through the Peace Arch’s portal, both countries’ national anthems are sung, veterans are recognized, and speeches spoken. But Peace Arch Park as we now know it was far different in 1937. For one, it was much smaller, and in fact, the Canadian side of the park (which is actually its own separate park) would not be finished until 1939. And the American side of the park was then named Samuel Hill Memorial Park, in honor of Samuel Hill (1857-1931), the man behind the creation of the Peace Arch in the early 1920s.
The celebration quickly caught on and was held through 1941, though after World War II it became known as the annual Peace Arch celebration. World War II caused it to be canceled from 1942 through 1945; it was preempted in 1946 by a June celebration recognizing the centennial of the Oregon Treaty, and a polio scare caused the 1947 event to be scrubbed. But the celebration returned in 1948, and, with the exception of a cancellation in 1951 because of bad weather, was held annually through 2007 at varying times during the year (although since 1972, the celebration has been held on the second Sunday in June). With a few exceptions, the event has attracted thousands each year; on some years, attendance has reached at least 25,000.
The Peace Arch was built to commemorate 100 years of peace between Great Britain and the United States, but the theme of the Peace Arch celebration is to celebrate the historically peaceful and friendly relations between the United States and Canada. That isn’t to say that national pride has not on occasion slipped into the ceremonies: The 1958 celebration recognized the centennial of the province of British Columbia, while the 1975 celebration ended with an American “bicentennial wagon train” dashing through the portal, beginning a 3,000-mile journey scheduled to end in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, on July 4, 1976 -- America’s 200th birthday.
Hands Across the Border
There was concern among some that the 2007 Peace Arch celebration might be the last. Crowd control and security issues were a concern, and construction at the border would lead to the cancellation of the 2008 and 2009 celebrations. But this passed, and though construction wasn’t complete by June 2010, Hands Across the Border returned. As in years past, the International Peace Arch Association put on the celebration, relying on donations and the sale of souvenirs (such as tee-shirts, patches, and pins) to cover expenses, which on the American side alone exceeded $5,000 in 2010.
Since its earliest years the focus of the celebration has been on children, and large numbers of them traditionally come to the event, sometimes camping nearby the night before. The 2010 celebration was no exception. The border crossing was closed to vehicular traffic from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and by late morning groups of children -- mostly Boy and Girl Scouts (known in Canada as Girl Guides) were roaming the park grounds, eagerly trading pins, buttons, flags, and patches in an informal affair that has made up its own part of the event for at least the last four decades. (Much of the memorabilia was related either to past scouting events -- jamborees and campouts -- or to prior Peace Arch ceremonies.) One estimate put the celebration’s total attendance at “nearly 4,000” (Cloverdale Reporter).
As if on cue, gray cloudy skies melted away to sunshine as the time for the parade step-off arrived. At 1 p.m. the parade began its procession through the portal, followed by the Scouts and Guides; the Girl Scouts and Girl Guides carried flags from the 145 World Association of Girl Scouts and Girl Guides countries in recognition of the centennial anniversary of the Girl Guides of Canada. But it was also the centennial of the Boy Scouts of America, and in recognition of the dual centennials, the theme for the 2010 Peace Arch celebration was “Past to Present.” The individual troop units were recognized from the stage (set up just north of the arch’s portal on the Canadian side), and they lined up along a pathway that had been drawn leading north of the portal toward the northern end of the park median.
Every End is a New Beginning
The American and Canadian flags were ceremonially raised, and singers from each country sang “The Star Spangled Banner” and “O Canada.” The crowd was then welcomed by a member of the Semiahmoo First Nation. It was the first time that the Semiahmoo had been involved in the celebration, but it was fitting, since a small part of the Canadian side of the park was originally part of the Semiahmoo Indian Reserve before being purchased by the British Columbia provincial government for the enlargement of its park.
As in years past, high school student speakers gave brief, thought-provoking speeches, followed by the more solemn veterans' ceremony, in which veterans from both countries laid wreaths at the foot of the Peace Arch. About 2:30 p.m., the celebration wrapped up with buglers playing Taps and finishing with Reveille, representing that every end is a new beginning.
Afterward, this observer looked on as a dozen or so kids capered about the Peace Arch and underneath its portal, some introducing themselves to others -- “I’m from British Columbia,” “I’m from Washington,” -- while others happily hopped across an imaginary line along the border itself -- “I’m in the U.S.A.! I’m in Canada!” It was wonderfully symbolic of the easy relations between the two countries, and of the hope that it will continue for generations to come.