Minnesotans angle for secession Fish: Americans who catch walleye in Canadian waters must throw them back. So, walleye-hungry residents of the northernmost part of the continental United States are saying, "If we can't beat Canada, let's join it."

Sun Journal

November 21, 1998|By Eric Slater | Eric Slater,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NORTHWEST ANGLE, Minn. -- Just before the sun rises over Flag Island, when the double-crested cormorants stand motionless in the paddies of wild rice and Lake of the Woods is a million-acre pane of black glass, it is difficult to comprehend how the British could have let this place go.

When the temperature drops to 50-below in January, when it's so cold the propane heaters won't light and the one gravel road to the rest of the world drifts with snow, it is hard to understand why the Americans wanted it.

A quirk of a place born of an 18th-century map-making error, the Northwest Angle is part of Minnesota but connected by land only to Canada. To drive to their state capital, Angleites must leave U.S. soil, travel through southeastern Manitoba and halt at U.S. Customs before re-entering the United States.

Living on the Angle, the northernmost point in the continental United States, has always been hard. But for generations, residents of Angle Inlet have endured, taking pride in their status as American orphans of geography.

However, many in the community of about 100 are talking about becoming Canadians. They are talking about seceding.

Why?

Walleye.

This year, Ontario decided that Minnesota-based sportsmen could catch the buttery-tasting fish in provincial waters -- but they had to toss them back. Declaring the Ontario fishery ailing and in need of protection, authorities made one exception to the rule: American fishermen who stayed in a Canadian lodge could keep their fish.

It is but the latest charge, albeit a particularly bold one, in a two-decade campaign to drive the Northwest Angle's fishing lodges out of business, folks here contend. And, they say, it is only the latest example of how their own government in Washington has ignored the plight of 14 little lodges and 91 registered voters. So, unable to beat the Canadians, they say they might join them.

Declaring that residents of the Angle deserve either the protection of the United States or their freedom, Rep. Collin C. Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat, has introduced a bill to let Angle voters make the call to stay or go. If Peterson's bill were to pass (highly unlikely), ceding the Northwest Angle would require a constitutional amendment (even more unlikely).

When the idea was first floated in the spring, most people here appreciated the secession movement primarily for its considerable public-relations value.

But it has been a bad fishing season. Business is off 30 percent and more, lodge owners say. Folks who had been coming to Celeste Colson's place for years, headed to Ontario lodges instead. After ponying up hundreds and thousands of dollars for cabins, fishing boats and guides, they expected to at least get the traditional walleye lunch out of the deal.

Colson, who runs Jake's Northwest Angle with her son Paul, doesn't want to alter her citizenship. But Paul's wife, Karen, is Canadian, and their twin boys hold dual citizenship. The 60-year-old Colson, whose lodge has been in the family since 1945, would rather be Canadian than out of business.

Just now, Colson has finished her duties as organist at St. Luke's Church at the Angle and is on her way to find a boat in trouble. She is in Minnesota waters. The boat and the islands she's pointing to are in Ontario waters. The international boundary she crosses has befuddled life here since shortly after the Revolutionary War.

Relying on a chart drawn by a Virginia colonist named John Mitchell, diplomats for the newly formed United States and Great Britain agreed in 1783 that the line dividing the United States and what would become Canada should then run west through the Great Lakes, and on "to the most northwestern point [of Lake of the Woods], and from thence, on a due west course, to the river Mississippi."

But the Mississippi didn't lie to the west. Its headwaters were 145 miles to the south, at what is now Lake Itasca, Minn.

Settlers in the Angle considered themselves part of the United States. But it wasn't until 1925 that American and Canadian negotiators officially proclaimed that, natural boundaries be damned, the border would run from the northwesternmost point of the lake straight south to the 49th Parallel. Anything west of the line belonged to Canada. Anything to the east belonged to the United States. That left Minnesota with the Northwest Angle and 317,000 acres of Lake of the Woods.

Dividing the lake waters has proved just as thorny. Since 1980, Ontario has been incrementally limiting the ability of Minnesota-based sport fishermen to take walleye in provincial waters. The first restriction limited each American vessel to 18 fish, regardless of the number of fishermen on board. Canadian federal courts struck down that rule as discriminatory and, therefore, unconstitutional.

But many other changes have survived legal challenges.

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