Protectors of Peace Arch Park ‘didn’t imagine we’d still be here today’ (photos)

SOUTH SURREY — To most, it’s a pretty patch of green that helps make the wait at the border a little more palatable. There’s also a monstrous white monument sitting in the middle of it that dwarfs everything in the vicinity.

But there’s a heck of a lot more to Peace Arch Park than its pretty facade and rows of customs booths. And it all started with the War of 1812.

Back then, it was America vs. Britain in a hodge-podge conflict that was fought on many fronts and would ultimately push deeply into what was then known as "The Canadas." The final casualties numbered in the thousands, including many native North Americans swept into the battle.

Two-hundred years ago, the Treaty of Ghent put an end to the war. Signed in the neutral city of Ghent, Belgium, on Dec. 24, 1814, the treaty would ultimately be seen as the beginning of a lasting peace, not only between the primary factions but between the U.S.A. and its northerly neighbour as well.

One hundred years later, the concept of an enormous border-straddling arch was put into play. Spearheaded by Washington State lawyer Sam Hill, the structure would commemorate the centennial of the signing of this most important treaty.

Seven years later, in 1921, the Peace Arch was officially dedicated in a lavish ceremony that packed the easternmost shore of Semiahmoo Bay. The construction of Peace Arch Park followed 18 years after that.

Today, the park, partially located in Surrey, remains one of the only spots on the continent where Americans and Canadians can gather, together, without making an official border crossing. The very antithesis of a "no man’s land," it is an every man’s land.

This is a concept near and dear to the hearts of the people involved in an organization called the United States Canada Peace Arch Anniversary Association. They don’t have gobs of money, nor are they in it to make money. They merely want us all to remember, to celebrate and further the cause of this unique and meaningful place.

And at noon last Friday (Feb. 13), they did just that. In a ceremony marking the 200th anniversary of the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent, they assembled, along with a hundred or so dignitaries, guests and spectators, directly under the arch to observe the occasion.

In attendance were a variety of VIPs, including Consul General of Canada, James Hill, Consul General of the United States, Lynne Platt, British Consul Robin Twyman, Consul of Belgium Ronald Masnick, representatives from the Washington Society of 1812 and the Washington Daughters of 1812, and the 10th White Rock Scout group colour guard.

This was no Woodstock. The crowd was nothing like the horde that showed up for the 1921 Arch dedication. But there was something about it — this group of earnest "lest we forget" folk holding true to their beliefs amidst the standard lineups of border-crossing shopaholics — that just felt right.

In the centre of the activity was a woman named Christina Alexander. She was the organizer. She was the MC. And, in the last-minute absence of the Blaine High School Choir, she was the songstress, delivering a bang-up version of a tune she wrote several years ago called "Children of a Common Mother."

That the arch itself is inscribed with those very words is no coincidence.

Alexander is a founder of the United States Canada Peace Arch Anniversary Association, of which she is the heartbeat. Born in New Westminster, raised in Whatcom County and filled with childhood memories of picnics and birthdays at Peace Arch Park and cross-border trips to visit relatives on both side, the Blaine resident is driven, deep inside, to keep the faith and spread the word.

"We formed in 1995 (for the 75th anniversary of the Peace Arch) to protect the history of this special place," she says. "I didn’t imagine we’d still be here today."

Over the years, Alexander’s group has made a difference. It produces brochures. It holds group tours. It created and distributed information packets to more than 1,500 schools. It stages historical re-enactments. It spoke for the park when the U.S. side was threatened with closure due to budget shortfalls. And it spearheaded the annual Peace Arch Park International Sculpture Exhibition that debuted in 1997 and will begin again on May 1.

And, of course, there’s last Friday’s ceremony. Indeed, this was the second ceremony in the last two months honouring the Treaty of Ghent. While the most recent affair marked the bicentennial of the official U.S. ratification, the first, held on Christmas Eve evening and featuring historically costumed actors, marked the bicentennial of the actual signing. Alexander calls them "bookend" events.

The park, as it turns out, is arguably more celebrated internationally than it is here at home. Alexander has been asked to speak about her experience and her organization in far flung spots such as Calgary, Barcelona and even South Korea, where "they’re so envious of a border like this."

As for the future, Alexander dreams of an international interpretive centre. She’s also quite seriously psyched about 2021, the centennial of the Peace Arch dedication. She thinks that’ll be "huge."

If you’d like more information, check out the United States Canada Peace Arch Anniversary Association website at Peacearchpark.org.

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