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Havre rolls out the carpet for Canadian visitors

A community barbecue in Havre honoring Canadians attracted hundreds of visitors from both sides of the border Friday.

Mayor Bob Rice had declared the opening day of Havre's annual Festival Days celebration as Canadian Day.

Canadian officials on hand for the event said they were thrilled at the reception they recieved.

"I think it's great," said Maple Creek Mayor Ann Weisgerber. "We used to have a lot of exchange before the Canadian dollar dropped. It's nice to see them trying to get us here again."

The barbecue was organized by Rice and others as part of his campaign to mend relations between U.S. and Canadian citizens. Rice spent several days in Calgary earlier this year meeting with Canadian officials and attending public events after hearing rumors that some Canadians had been mistreated in Havre and Great Falls.

"We tried to treat him right when he was there, and I think this is his way of repaying the favor," said Medicine Hat Mayor Garth Vallely. "His hospitality has been spectacular so far."

Rice said today he was pleased with the event's turnout.

"I thought it really went well," he said. "I was very happy with the turnout. Some of the businesses called and thanked us for putting it on. We had a great team that made this happen. We already got some commitments from the Canadians for next year, so this is something that will happen in the future, only it will be bigger and better."

The cultural exchange is one that officials from both sides of the border have tried to nurture since tensions arose over the war in Iraq, Vallely said. The Medicine Hat mayor said he had been told that some of his constituents were poorly treated in Havre and other areas in the United States.

"The problems arose from our respective governments' differing of opinion on the war in Iraq," he said. "But we need to remember that our troops are fighting side by side in Afghanistan. And the British troops fighting in Iraq trained at a military camp outside Medicine Hat."

Lethbridge Mayor Bob Tarleck said he had heard of similar incidents of poor treatment.

"There were lots of rumors," he said. "The thing I think is interesting is how much effort Mayor Bob has put forward toward mending the relationship between our two countries."

Rice's efforts have been appreciated, Vallely added.

"We think the world of him," he said.

Rice said he was inspired to organize an event dedicated specifically for Canadians during his visits to Canada earlier this year.

"They had me up in Calgary for the Calgary Stampede, and I was up there for Maple Creek's 100th anniversay," he said. "I kind of saw what they were doing and thought, 'Well, hey, let's get them down here and give them a taste of Havre, Montana.'"

A number of Canadian dignitaries were on hand for Festival Days, including Weisgerber, Vallely, Tarleck, and representatives from Calgary and the Northwest Territories. Several cities also organized tour buses to take Canadians to Havre for the weekend.

Debbie Vandeberg of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce estimated the crowd attending the barbecue to be between 400 and 500 people. Although the number is less than the 800 that Rice had hoped to attract, Vandeberg said she was thrilled at the turnout.

Several Canadian mayors were honored during the annual Festival Days parade Saturday morning.

Vallely said he was planning a similar trip for Rice next summer, adding that the reciprocal trips are more than social visits.

"He's a great neighbor," he said of Rice. "He was instrumental in setting up a meeting with Senator Burns. It's not very often that you get 45 minutes of face time with a U.S. senator. The least we can do is ride in his parade."


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