Hands Across the Border Revival is held at the Peace Arch on June 14, 2015.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 7/07/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11079
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On June 14, 2015, the Hands Across the Border Revival is held at the Peace Arch at the U.S.-Canada border crossing in Blaine, Whatcom County. It is a return of the Hands Across the Border celebration, which had been held since 1937 but abruptly canceled after the 2012 event. Sunshine and smiles abound as the crowd enjoys the celebration's comeback.

How Could We Not Bring It Back?

The Peace Arch was built in 1921 to commemorate 100 years of peace between Great Britain and the United States, but the theme of the annual Hands Across the Border celebration was to celebrate the historically peaceful and friendly relations between the United States and Canada. The celebration had been popular since its 1937 inception, so it was a shock in February 2013 when the announcement came that it had been canceled. It had been temporarily canceled a few times before, but this time it was supposedly permanent. Organizers blamed rising costs and fading volunteer interest. Many thought Hands Across the Border would fade into memory as have many of the parades and celebrations that were popular in the twentieth century.

It didn't. Though it wasn't the celebration's sponsor, the United States Canada Peace Anniversary Association posted the initial cancelation notice online. So many people followed up with the association to ask what could be done that the association surveyed 530 prior participants to gauge interest in bringing the event back. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Association founder Christina Alexander explained, "We saw how much people loved it and what it meant to them. OK, there's the historical component, but it really means so much more than that to people, especially the kids. How could we not bring it back?" (interview).

Smiles and Songs

The Peace Anniversary Association established a first-ever website for Hands Across the Border registration and a $15 per-person fee to cover costs. (Previously the celebration had been funded by donations and souvenir sales.) Ultimately, more than 1,600 registered. The event had long been a favorite of American and Canadian boy and girl scouts, and many of the registrants were scouts; one troop came from as far away as Arizona. Hundreds more unregistered visitors joined them at the Peace Arch on June 14, 2015.

The weather was perfect, the crowd happy, the grins the same as in years past as the procession paraded through the Peace Arch portal at the traditional 1 p.m. hour. Songs were sung, speeches spun, memories made. (And many scout patches swapped.) The ceremony was slightly abbreviated compared to recent years, and the nearby border crossings weren't closed as they had been during previous ceremonies. But these subtleties didn't matter. People were just glad to be there.

Spiritual and Ethereal

What is it about the Peace Arch and this celebration that has such an impact on people? A few quotes from the Peace Anniversary Association survey tell it from a scout's view: "It was an excellent experience as a youth and I believe it helps to broaden horizons and open up your world view ... It is important as a young person to see that people who you believe to be so much different from you really aren't that different at all," one wrote, while another added, "I loved getting to know new cultures, troops from far away, and visiting the border of another country. As an adult, I see how this experience shaped who I am" ("Help Reestablish").

To some it's almost spiritual. The Peace Arch was dedicated by Sam Hill (1857-1931) in 1921, shortly after the victory by Britain, the U.S., and their allies in the "War to End All Wars" (World War I). Hill -- and others -- dreamed of a perfect world peace following the war, and his arch was a symbol of that vision. History hasn't played out that way, but if you walk through the portal and come out the other side, or stand in the accompanying park and look out at the water and mountains stretching into forever, you can almost believe that it will; it's an ethereal feeling, one that doesn't always lend itself to words.

Sources: Alyssa Pitcher, "Hands Across the Border to Return This Summer," The Northern Light (Blaine), April 22, 2015 (http://www.thenorthernlight.com/2015/04/22/hands-across-the-border-to-return-this-summer/); Tracy Holmes, "'Hands' Annual Tradition Up in Air," Peace Arch News (Surrey, BC), February 7, 2013, p. 3; "Hands Across the Border 94-Year Tradition Ends," February 3, 2013, News 1130 website accessed June 7, 2015 (http://www.news1130.com/2013/02/03/hands-across-the-border-94-year-tradition-ends/); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "The annual Peace Arch celebration returns on June 13, 2010" (by Phil Dougherty), http://www.historylink.org (accessed June 7, 2015); "Help Reestablish Hands Across the Border," United States Canada Peace Anniversary Association website accessed June 7, 2015 (http://www.handsacrosstheborder.info/); Phil Dougherty interview with Christina Alexander, June 14, 2015, Blaine, Washington.

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