BUFFALO, N.Y. — In the middle of a recent Zoom meeting with colleagues, I commented about the presence of United Nations flags on international borders, like the ones that flew, some until recently, on certain bridge border crossings between Ontario, Canada, and New York State in the United States, over Lake Erie and the Niagara River. An awkward silence passed until it was gently pointed out that most international borders did not, actually, fly the UN flag.
A call to a childhood friend, who also grew up in Buffalo, confirmed that a UN flag had been flown on the Peace Bridge, a border crossing over Lake Erie connecting Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ontario, as long as she remembered — decades. It was only during recent construction on the bridge that the flag was removed. Starting sometime in the mid-20th century, UN flags had flown over multiple bridge crossings connecting New York State and the province of Ontario.
A second call to another childhood friend who now lives in Michigan with her partner, a born-and-bred Detroiter, said he never recalled a UN flag flying on the bridge crossing from Michigan to Ontario over the Detroit River. This crossing, connecting Lake Erie to Lake Huron, is the busiest crossing on the US northern border, according to the US Department of Transportation.
But a UN flag did fly over other bridges besides the Peace Bridge, such as the Rainbow crossing between Western New York and Ontario, though not always without controversy. In 2018, the presence of the UN flag on the Peace Bridge caused a bit of a stir when Canada joined other countries in adopting the UN’s new Global Compact for Migration. , some Canadian social-media users suggested, meant that Canada had ceded control of its border to the UN.
According to , published in 1967, “The flag may be used in accordance with this flag code by Governments, organizations and individuals to demonstrate support of the United Nations and to further its principles and purposes.”
The Canada-US border, or International Boundary, is the longest border in the world, with more than 100 crossings, of which 26 are bridges or tunnels. The boundary was established via several treaties from the 18th to 20th centuries, upon the completion of the Alaska-Canada border.
The Canada-US border runs mainly along the 49th parallel until the Great Lakes. Then it becomes a line through the middle of each of the five lakes, leading to Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine as a border to the Canadian provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick.
In 2019, more than $600 billion of goods were traded. So these borders are busy. It only made sense that the ultimate symbol of international cooperation — the UN flag — would fly at certain points here.
In fact, the border between New York State and Ontario and Quebec provinces in Canada alone is more than 400 miles long. The Peace Bridge border crossing, between Buffalo and Fort Erie, seconds Detroit in the number of entries.
With all nonessential border crossings banned because of Covid-19 since March, when Canada and the US partly closed the border by agreement, there has been a nostalgia in the air to return to the formerly close relationship between the two countries and the frequent recreational crossings.
The last time the US-Canada border was closed may have been during the War of 1812. It’s a unique international relationship that you don’t appreciate until it’s gone. Plus, Canada has some of the nicest lake beaches in the area and British chocolate (it’s better than American).
On some bridge border crossings between Western New York and Ontario, the UN flags had flown for so long, and especially now that they are gone, no one is really sure why they were there to begin with.
A call to the US number of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, a binational entity created in 1938 to manage the three bridge crossings around the Canadian and US cities of Niagara Falls, including the Rainbow and Lewiston Bridges, was returned by the press office on the Canadian side. While the press officer didn’t know why the flags had originally flown over any of the bridges under the Commission’s purview, she did say that the last one was taken down in the 1990s. (She also volunteered to go to the library in Niagara Falls, Ontario, to see if there was any documentation.)
In the historical archives of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library’s main branch, there are 13 pages of handwritten cards documenting coverage of the UN in Western New York during the 20th century, including one devoted to the UN flag. A reason for the coverage may be that the area was originally one of the places that had been considered as a home for the UN, in 1945.
, a Canadian parcel of land in the waterways between Ontario and New York State, between Buffalo and both US and Canadian cities of Niagara Falls, was proposed as the site of a peace installation that would include UN headquarters.
The now-defunct Buffalo-based Courier Express reported on the first UN flags to be displayed in Buffalo in 1948, as well as the first flags to be flown both in Buffalo and Niagara Falls in 1950 — and several flag ceremonies on the Peace Bridge, including the Boy Scouts celebrating the UN’s 10th anniversary.
It is possible that this was when the flag was first raised on the bridge, a position it would hold until renovations, begun in 2018, eliminated its flag pole. Another binational entity, the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, did not respond to questions about the decision to remove the last UN flag from the Peace Bridge.
With the European Union now banning travelers from the US for an indeterminate time, it looks like Canada might follow suit and continue the ban on nonessential travel until sometime in 2021, despite internal lockdowns being removed in Ontario and New York State. In early July, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau an invitation to meet with US President Trump in Washington, D.C. By mid-July, the border closure was officially extended until Aug. 20.
In a weird twist, some of the best vantage points to see national holiday celebrations of each country, Canada Day on July 1 and the US national holiday of July 4, happen to be from the opposite shores of Lake Erie. This year, the official celebrations were more muted than other years — due to Covid-19 and officials not wanting to attract big crowds.
It seems oddly appropriate that in this climate, the UN flags aren’t flying anymore; as what was once one of the strongest international relationships — between the US and Canada — has cooled to as tepid as this year’s national celebrations.
This essay is part of a series of people who work in international affairs or global health relating their experiences during the pandemic from across the globe: Vienna, Chicago, Singapore, Madrid, Beirut, Geneva, Santiago, Chile, Lilongwe, Malawi, Panama City, Panama, Auxerre, France and Whitchurch, England.
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