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Business and Economy

Tariff Feud Rattles Close Knit Communities On Both Sides Of Maine - Canadian Border

The feud over tariffs between President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has rattled many towns along the border, but few are connected as tightly as Madawaska, Maine, and Edmundston, New Brunswick. This is where these linked mills make pulp and paper along the St. John River. With a trade war looming, people on both sides of that river are mystified by the deteriorating international ties.

Standing here on the bank of the St. John River in Edmundston, New Brunswick, it's easy to see the compact and the intertwined international relationship. An ancient two-lane bridge carries cars and trucks over the river. Pipes carry pulp and steam from the pulp mill to the paper mill. All that separates the towns and the mills is the river and the international border.

"The mill supports our local economy. It's our largest employer, probably, on both sides of the border," says Gary Picard, the town manager of Madawaska, Maine, which sits in the Northeast corner of the U.S.

Picard says the mills have been mutually beneficial.

"It's an interesting operation," he says, "because the pulp is made over in Canada, and their electricity and steam are generated in Canada and routed via pipelines to the finish side of the manufacturing process here in Madawaska, Maine."

Nearly a century ago, the Canadian company that owned a pulp mill in Edmundston, New Brunswick, built the paper mill just across the river in Maine to avoid duties on finished paper. Ever since, trees have gone in on the Canada side and paper has come out in the United States.

The mills are now owned by Twin Rivers Paper Company. About 500 employees at the Maine mill make products that include the packaging for Krispy Kreme and Tim Hortons doughnuts, and the bags for Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn. Another 350 people work at the pulp mill in New Brunswick.

With the border feud escalating, many residents of these tight-knit communities have been taken aback.

"Very surprised because, you know, we've always had good relationships," says Norman Doucette.  Doucette, who has been working at the Madawaska mill for 40 years, is taking a lunch break at the Tastee-Freez on Main Street.

"Especially for us," he adds. "I mean, we have a pulp mill in Canada so the relationships have been very good. So now, you know, going back and forth with Trudeau and Trump, that's not very appealing."

But political tensions are only growing. Last year, the Trump administration imposed tariffs on the Canadian softwoods that are milled into two-by-fours and other dimensional lumber, a long contentious issue. And on July 1, Canada imposed new tariffs in retaliation for U.S. tariffs.

President Trump renewed his criticisms at a late-June rally in South Carolina, complaining about Canada's tariffs on dairy products.  "Canada. You know, Canada, nice guy. Nice guy. Prime Minister. Justin. I say, Justin, what's your problem, Justin?"

Such comments don't go over well on the Canadian side of the border. Danny Long, a painter in Edmundston, is one of many residents of the St. John Valley with dual citizenship.

"I don't think that, as far as two countries that are close-knit together like that, should even be talking to each other in such a way" Long says. "We should be asking ourselves, how can we better help each other? You know?"

"We're not used to that kind of rhetoric, obviously," says Edmundston Mayor Cyrille Simard. He says this valley was settled long ago by Acadians before the river became the international border. Most locals speak French.

"You have families that settled here on both sides of the St. John River who are still families," Simard says. "So we've been working and we've been living together. So there's a fabric there that when you hear that kind of rhetoric, a lot of people just wonder, why is it this way, and what could be the impact in the long term?"

Down by the river, a train carries chemicals to the pulp mill as a bald eagle flies past, and the world's longest international border still seems to be tranquil. 

This story was originally published July 18, 2018 at 6:11 p.m. ET.