On May 9, 1970, about 450 Canadian civilians, protesting the recent United States invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, cross the border at the Peace Arch at Blaine and storm into downtown Blaine (Whatcom County), where they tear down American flags and vandalize buildings and other structures. They are confronted by a combination of nightstick-wielding police and enraged American civilians, who repeatedly charge the protestors until they are driven back into Canada.
By the spring of 1970 the United States had been actively involved in combat operations in Vietnam for five years, amid growing opposition in the U.S. to the war and increasing demonstrations against it. On April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon (1913-1994) announced that U.S. forces in Vietnam would pursue enemy troops into Cambodia, a neutral country. Widespread protests followed this announcement, and on May 4, National Guardsmen fired into a student demonstration at Kent State, killing four demonstrators. Protests escalated on campuses and in cities across America, and for the next several weeks it seemed like all hell was breaking loose throughout the country.
Against this backdrop, on the sunny afternoon of Saturday, May 9, 1970, approximately 450 Canadian protestors (some accounts put the figure at 500 to 600) massed just north of the Peace Arch that separates Canada from the United States on Interstate 5. About 2 p.m., the shouting protestors surged across the American border. None of the contemporary news reports suggest that the Americans expected this incursion, and neither the Border Patrol nor Customs and Immigrations officers stopped the Canadians as they streamed across the border at Peace Arch Park.
The Canadian invaders -- described disdainfully by The Seattle Times as “most[ly] ... young and bearded” -- were primarily between 18 and 20 years old, with a few as young as 14. One member of the group claimed he was an American who had gone north to avoid the draft. They announced that they planned to penetrate 19 miles into the United States, the same distance that President Nixon had said U.S. forces would penetrate into Cambodia, and stay the same length of time -- six weeks.
The demonstrators ripped down plaques reading “May These Gates Never Be Closed” on the Peace Arch and tied them together across the arch’s entrance, symbolically closing the open border between the United States and Canada. They threw bags of red paint at the arch and in red and green paint and ink scrawled “Amerika at War With the Earth,” “Power to the People,” “Free Bobby Seale,” and other slogans and obscenities on the arch. The protestors blocked both northbound and southbound traffic lanes on I-5, and marched about a quarter to a half mile south into downtown Blaine.
As the mob entered Blaine, they threw rocks and bottles and smashed two large plate glass windows in the National Bank of Commerce, broke panes from other shop windows, and splattered Blaine’s memorial to its war dead with paint. They also ripped down at least six United States flags, including flags from in front of city hall and the war memorial, and carried some of them back to Interstate 5 and burned them in a bonfire on the freeway.
Counterattack and Push Back
Five members of the Blaine Police Department responded; soon nine Whatcom County sheriff officers were on the scene. The Washington State Patrol was alerted in several counties and cars from as far south as Seattle (110 miles) were called. Members of the state patrol began to arrive, and the police force, armed with nightsticks, began pushing the protestors out of downtown Blaine. Still, at this point the police were outnumbered by the protestors by at least a 10 to 1 ratio.
By this time, residents of Blaine were also responding. Several had already accosted the raiders as they stormed into Blaine; at least one had grabbed back a flag that a protestor had torn down. Now groups of American men -- “young and not-so-young” (Bellingham Herald, May 11, 1970, p. 2) -- counterattacked and pummeled the intruders. In spite of their rhetoric, the Canadians clearly did not have an organized plan to occupy the United States, and when the American civilians counterattacked, the scene degenerated into small groups of people fighting each other in running fistfights. Press reports of the number of American civilians that joined in the fracas are vague; one account says “scores,” another suggests a smaller number, but whatever the figure, it was far fewer than the number of Canadians.
The protestors retreated to the south end of Peace Arch Park, hurling rocks and bottles at the pursuing Americans as they did. In the park just south of the Peace Arch, the Canadians regrouped and attempted to make a final stand. But the American civilians, running at full tilt, charged the Canadians again and, backed up by more state police that were continuing to arrive, drove the attackers back across the border.
Stoned Cars and Prayers for Peace
Once back on the Canadian side of the park, the protestors threw rocks at a Burlington Northern Railway train that was traveling north on the railroad tracks along the western edge of the park. The train was carrying new cars of various makes to Vancouver, and about 90 of the 107 cars on the train were damaged by the rocky missiles. “Royal Canadian Mounted Police kept an eye on the protestors after they returned to Canadian soil,” reported The Seattle Times, but there are no reports that the Mounties intervened. About 5 p.m., the protestors simply left. Total damage estimates ranged from between $50,000 to $100,000, the majority from damage to the cars on the train and to expensive, recently installed lights that illuminated the arch at night. Three people were arrested (on the U.S. side of the border), and several Blaine policemen suffered minor injuries.
By coincidence, a prayer service protesting the war had been planned at Peace Arch Park at 3 p.m. the next day. A group organized by the United Church of Canada was to form just north of the arch, while just south of the arch, various United States church groups would meet. Instead, about 200 Blaine residents, expecting another incursion and armed with clubs, baseball bats, and bicycle chains, began to gather on the American side of the arch as 3 p.m. approached. Police officers monitoring the border asked the residents to move back to the southern edge of the park, and they complied. But the American church group decided to cross the border and join the service with its Canadian brethren 100 yards north of the arch, and together they sang songs and prayed. The 200 or so gathered at the southern end of the park, along with police on both sides, warily watched the service, but there were no problems.
Passing the Buck and Owning Up
There was considerable finger-pointing and political buck passing the following week. Glenn Gibbons, president of the Blaine local of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) claimed that during the incursion an unsigned “hands off” order appeared on the employees' bulletin board at the customs office in Blaine, preventing border officers from taking action against the protestors. The Bellingham Herald followed up to try to determine where the order came from. The immigration office in Seattle said it knew nothing and referred the reporter to its national office in Washington, D.C. The Immigration Department in Washington, D.C. said it was not investigating the incident and referred the reporter to its Seattle office. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice told the Herald that the incident was a local problem and reminded the paper of the open border between the U.S. and Canada.
Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1919-2000) was on a Pacific tour at the time of the incursion; the acting prime minister, Mitchell Sharp (1911-2004), told reporters the next week that he was awaiting a report on the exact circumstances before a decision would be made whether or not the Canadian government would issue a formal apology. (It is presently not known if one was issued.) Other members of Canada’s Parliament responded more quickly. House of Commons member George Muir (1903-1970), a farmer and seed grower from Manitoba, put it this way: It was “... a disgraceful invasion by a large group of hoodlums, queers, and just plain fools from the Canadian side of the border who tore down the American flag and engaged in insurrection” (Bellingham Herald, May 12, 1970, p.1).
Canadian private citizens on British Columbia’s lower mainland (just across the border from Blaine), accustomed to friendly and easy relations between the two countries, responded even more quickly. Within a few days, city councils in Surrey and New Westminster issued apologies, and Canadian citizen groups formed and contributed more flags to the city of Blaine than were destroyed in the melee. The arch was quickly repainted its customary bright white, and gradually tempers cooled and calm returned.