GRAND FORKS The last Monday of August — that would have been Aug. 30 — was an important day in the history of the International Peace Garden. For many years, the Peace Garden has been the much appreciated and little rewarded stepchild of legislatures in both Manitoba and North Dakota.

It is an international peace garden after all.

But on Monday, Aug. 30, Manitoba made good on its promise. Provincial Premier Brian Pallister joined North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum at a news conference in the garden confirming Manitoba’s commitment.

The province of Manitoba will match funding approved by the North Dakota Legislature in 2019, though not without controversy. This involves $7.5 million to match North Dakota’s contribution approved in the 2019 legislative session, adjusted for fluctuations in the currencies of both countries.

Whatever these fluctuations, the number allows significant improvements at the Peace Garden. The most prominent, in recent publicity at least, is a greenhouse to house what is almost certainly the world’s largest collection of cacti and succulents. Another is a playground for children, important because their enjoyment there will fix the garden in their minds — and in times to come, help them as adults to recognize and appreciate the International Peace Garden as a unique place.

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All of this follows significant upgrades at the garden, including a visitor center with a café — and that doesn’t include the improvements to the garden achieved in the last decade. Among these is a fence to keep deer away from growing plants.

Two years ago, in the summer of 2019, I wrote about the Peace Garden as an interstice, a place that seems to exist outside of space and time, not just physically but psychically. This sense is enhanced by the presence of structures dating from the Great Depression of the 1930s and involving the Civilian Conservation Corps, which gave hope to the destitute not only in North Dakota but throughout the United States.

Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald columnist.
Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald columnist.

The connection with the generation of the 1930s remains visible in the garden, recalling an especially painful time in the history of the two countries sharing the garden.

Unfortunately, the celebration of mutual funding of improvements at the peace garden was muted by COVID-19, which led to a closure of the international boundary to all but essential travelers. Last week’s ceremony cast a harsh light on this decision, though unintentionally. Pallister officially inducted Burgum into the “Order of the Buffalo,” a Manitoba equivalent to North Dakota’s Roughrider Hall of Fame (though the standards don’t include citizenship in the entity conferring the award).

This is one more of the anomalies that might occur to any visitor to the International Peace Garden. The garden is a place apart. I mean this literally. To begin with, it is hard to get to. Brandon, Manitoba, is the nearest city, with Minot, North Dakota, a close second. Both have populations knocking on 50,000 people. Grand Forks, with a bit larger population, is three hours away.

Beyond place, the garden seems to be in a time apart as well. The Peace Chapel, a centerpiece of the garden grounds, resembles a Cold War bunker — not entirely inappropriate, of course, since that is the era in which the garden grew. The chapel walls are inscribed with quotes, meant to be inspiring, about world peace. Few of these are from women and fewer still from indigenous people.

Vigorous efforts are being made to ameliorate this situation — a circumstance that will enhance the notion that the Peace Garden is a place out of time, calling out our better selves while reminding us of our previous shortcomings.

In 2019, I wrote an account called “Twenty-four hours in the peace garden.” In that article I mentioned my personal association with the garden. I was a member of the board of directors for about a decade. Adding to that disclosure, I can say that I am involved in development efforts at the garden.

This means that my tenure at the garden will outlast Premier Pallister’s involvement. At the news conference announcing Manitoba’s commitment to the garden, he pointed out that he’d visited the garden as a child.

Manitoba’s commitment to the International Peace Garden was delayed due to the exigencies of provincial politics. An election intervened, shutting off government grants for fear they might be mistaken as bribery. Then Pallister himself fell from grace. The ceremony at the International Peace Garden last week was among the last of Pallister’s tenure as premier of Manitoba. His resignation was prompted largely by remarks about the deaths of indigenous youth in residential schools, which forced an examination of conscience and led him to resign from office.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.