In Search of the Origins of the Canadian-American Border. A provisional Exploration

John Willis1 

Conservateur Histoire économique, Musée canadien de l’histoire

Résumé: L’histoire de la frontière canado-américaine est un sujet long et compliqué à étudier. En tant que citoyens, les chercheurs partagent l’anxiété généralisée qui entoure actuellement toute discussion sur la frontière canado-américaine. Nous proposons ici une perspective d’avant la période du XXe siècle, afin d’apaiser ces craintes et de resituer notre compréhension de la frontière comme le résultat de l’action humaine et quelque chose qui a changé avec le temps. L’article examine brièvement l’époque coloniale où les Amérindiens domiciliés se déplaçaient librement à travers le territoire entre les empires français et britannique. J’examine le XIXe siècle où ni les États-Unis ni l’Amérique du Nord britannique n’étaient vraiment en mesure d’imposer une frontière hermétique. Notre discussion nous amène à explorer le contexte européen des événements (le Congrès de Vienne), dans le but de mieux comprendre les processus sociaux, historiques et géographiques dans l’établissement de relations frontalières modernes. Je conclus que plusieurs agences ont participé à la création des frontières. Le prince et ses serviteurs ont joué un grand rôle dans la création des frontières, mais aussi ceux qui vivaient, cultivaient et travaillaient près du sol, au niveau du plancher des vaches.

Mots-clés : frontière, Canada, États-Unis, origine, tracé.

Abstract: The history of the Canadian-American border is a long and complicated topic to study. As citizens, scholars partake of the widespread anxiety that currently shrouds all discussion of the Canadian-American border. We offer here some perspective, prior to the 20th century period, in an effort to soothe fears and as well to recast our understanding of the border as something that has been made by men and something that has changed over time. The article examines briefly the colonial era when Amérindiens domiciliés moved freely through the territory between the French and British empires. I examine the 19th century when neither the U.S. nor British North America was truly in a position to impose a hermetically-sealed border. Our discussion leads us to explore the European background of events (the Congress of Vienna),  in an effort to better understand the processes social, historical and geographical in the making of modern border relationships. I conclude that a plurality of agencies were involved in the making of borders. The prince’s and their servants had a big role in creating borders, but so as well did those who lived, farmed and worked close to the ground, sur le niveau du plancher des vaches.

Key words: order, Canada, United States, origin, outline.


I am an historian, I have to go back in time, in order to make sense of past and present. I stare at the events of the past, much as I stared a few weekends ago in April 2018 out onto the blue waters of Lake Champlain from Rouses Point, New York. One looks for clarity, meaning. You hope to find it. Maybe it will loom up right in front of your face, much like the snow-capped mountain emerging in the horizon near St. Albans, Vermont on the opposite shore of the lake. Sunny and clear is the horizon out on the lake on a fine spring day. The perspective a few kilometers to the west will be less than enchanting for those refugees from the U.S. heading into Canada, their life in someone else’s hands, at the Roxham Road crossing (Figure 1).  Only a fool could believe that the marvels of modern technology have turned our planet into a borderless world. The border like the proverbial unwanted dinner guest, as concept and as reality is alive and well in this early 21st century.

Fig. 1. Refugees crossing the border from the U.S. into Canada, late winter 2018 at Roxham Road, Québec. (Réfugiés traversant la frontière, en direction nord,  sur le chemin de Roxham au Québec, vers la fin de l’hiver 2018)

Chemin-Roxham-IMG_3438-DH.jpgCliché David Himbert / Hans Lucas

Since the advent of the Trump administration in the U.S.A. in November 2016 and its advertised intent to crack down on “illegal aliens” the level of anxiety among immigrant and ethno-cultural communities in the U.S. has increased sharply.  Recent immigrants to the U.S. are uncertain about their refugee status and future have begun leaving the country. Many have crossed the northern border into Canada. My wife and I noticed in the early summer of 2017 refugees heading on foot for the main crossing at Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle astride interstate 87, a highway running through northern New York State. Many refugees cross into Canada at the Roxham Road crossing near Hemmingford, Québec, a few kilometers east of Lacolle. Not a few at the present time are from Central America.  There is no customs port here; the road stops on either side of the border, nor is there is a high fence or insurmountable barrier. Refugees simply step across the line and around a riot fence or old rusted fence, avoiding the warning signs put up by Canadian authorities, sometimes walking through snow and always making sure not to fall in the ditch.  Once in Canada they are promptly put under arrest, taken to a holding facility at Lacolle, and thence to temporary lodgings or an emergency shelter in the Montreal area where they await determination of their refugee status. Obtaining this refugee status is no foregone conclusion but the refugees are willing to take the risk, their American dream is over. [1]   As I said the border is not a thing of the past, but nonetheless that is where I will focus my propos for the balance of this piece.  I believe that history can provide perspective and salutary critical distance which can balance the anxieties caused by current events.

In preparing an article for publication on the Canadian-American border during the 1920s, the heyday of American Prohibition, I came across a number of readings, concepts and arguments that never made it onto the page.  I decided to revisit some of the literature consulted with a view to start sketching out a more general approach to the theme of the Canadian American border.  The tone will be speculative rather than authoritative.  My sense is that some explicit thinking needs to be given to the history of the border during the French-British colonial period and during the 19th century. This could help put the subject of the border during the 1920s in perspective. Far from being a constant of the Canadian-American past the border is the product of evolving historical relationships.  The border as laid out during the 1920s is a specific geo-historical manifestation. There were other geo-historical types before and there will be more in the future. A wise composer once stated that all things must pass. He was not mistaken.

Les domiciliés

The history of the Canadian-American border has its roots in the French regime when Amérindiens or indigenous peoples belonging to a half a dozen Catholic mission-villages in the St. Lawrence valley – they were known as les domiciliés – travelled north-south in a relatively free and easy manner, ensuring paralegal trade connections between the French and British colonies. They made the link between Fort Orange (Albany) and Montréal.  Mohawks and Mohawk women were much involved in the contraband trade. (Noel 2010.  Grabowski 1994)   So were those French women traders based in LaPrairie, the Desauniers sisters.    Jean-François Lozier has conducted an in-depth study of the domiciliés who for a time were the key operators of the Richelieu-Lake Champlain boulevard of trade and diplomacy.  Diplomacy and geopolitics, followed relationships established first by trade. “Trade and peace we take to be one thing”, opined a five nations Iroquois orator at Fort Orange in 1735.  (Lozier, 2012: 267) To all appearances the trading link south of the border followed the relationships put in place by the domiciliés. By the turn of the 17th century French authorities were more than willing to follow the strategy of their mission domiciliés.   The French, like the natives, would adopt a posture of neutrality vis à vis New York, all the while following the lead of the domiciliés who are more than willing to make war on New England (Lozier, 2012: 281).

As the 18th century progresses, the French will try to grasp the north-south contraband trade by the horns but with mitigated success. Notwithstanding its experience in the Caribbean, where smuggling quite simply fed the sugar colonies of the metropole (Mandelblatt, 2013).  France would officially strive to discourage trade between French and British colonies and thereby keep trade within imperial bounds.  The governor Philippe de Rigaud Vaudreuil met with leaders in Kahnawake and Kahnesakate in 1719. The latter agreed to apply to the French for written permits to trade south. The French proposed to set up a military patrol on Lake Champlain. They seriously envisaged building a Fort at Kanawaghe, to help contain native trading practises but they gave up the idea by 1725.  According to Lozier, the only reason the domiciliés agreed to the permit system is that they were convinced that the French would not be able to implement it. (Lozier, 2012: 297-298) The country between New France and New York was vast and relatively unsettled. Amérindiens were in the habit of foraging for ginseng and other commodities as far south as the Lake Champlain area; the ginseng was dried and marketed elsewhere in the world, including China, through Montréal. (Kalm, 1749: 479). In the spring of 1722 a flotilla of 24 canoes manned by domiciliés and laden with furs, bound for the south encountered a patrol of French soldiers. The natives were told to halt, but they stared the French down. After a brief parley punctuated by a vigorous round of war whoops, they carried on their way (Lozier, 2012: 301).

In terms of imperial authority the territory between Montreal and the colony of New York resembles a transitional no-man’s land.  By, if not before the 1720s trading posts emerged here and there to facilitate the Anglo-French exchanges carried out by domicilés, notably at Oswego (near Lake Ontario), Fort Edward (between the Hudson Valley and Lake Champlain, Saratoga (near the Hudson River) and Fort Drummer (Brattleboro, Vt.) on the Connecticut River (Lozier, 2012:  309-310).  From the 1720s to the 1750s the Desauniers sisters made their fortune trading southward in contraband furs toward the British colonies from Kanawakghe near Montreal. The sisters endeared themselves to their local Amérindien business associates and clientele by learning the local language and offering better prices than merchants located just across the river in Montréal (Lozier, 2012: 31.  Noel, 2010: 211).  By the time the Desauniers were expelled from Kanawakge, in 1752, we see a more formal militarization of the border territory as the British and French, locked in a global struggle (the Seven Years War), build fortifications and move troops like pieces on a chessboard, in an effort to defeat the other. The domiciliés, once so important to the border economy had become mere pawns.

The 19th Century

New France fell to the British, de facto in 1760 and by treaty in 1763. During the interregnum before the treaty of Paris was signed, British military engineers and navy cartographers undertook a survey of the settled parts of the St Lawrence valley and of the St. Lawrence River and Gulf.  Little attention was paid to the border between the new colony (formerly New France) and the northernmost parts of the 13 colonies.  Eventually the two governors of New York (Sir Henry Moore) and Québec (James Murray), both presiding over British colonies met in Sorel in 1766 and decided to draw a border line between their respective jurisdictions. The result was a line drawn during the 1770s by John Collins deputy Surveyor General at Québec and Thomas Valentine a New York surveyor, and others. The border between Québec and New York was supposed to follow the 45th parallel but as it turned out, the line meandered south of the 45th to the west of Lake Champlain, and north thereof east of the Lake (Soucy, 1970: 38, 48, 92-98). The Americans would adhere to this line in the treaty that confirmed their independence, in 1783 and later in negotiations leading up to Webster Ashburton agreement (1842). They would hold to and go after any territory they could get whether at British or Spanish expense throughout the 19th century, and most notably, at Canadian expense in the Alaska boundary dispute, resolved in 1903.

The literature is pretty clear on these events.  Moreover Canadians are more than willing to see themselves as victims of unbridled American manifest destiny.  Notwithstanding the appetite and inclinations of our neighbours, we need to remember that there were certain limiting factors affecting the territorial ambitions both of the U.S. and British North America during the 19th century. Second we need to think about the actual meaning of a border in the 19th century:  a century during which the modern meaning of a border, as part of a more general spatial process, was being worked out.  I will examine these two issues in succession.

Factors Limiting Territorial Ambitions

Throughout the 19th century, the American territorial interest was guided by objectives of aggrandizement and sense of opportunism in the north east and on the Pacific coast. James Polk’s old slogan:  fifty-four forty or fight still rings out, 170 years after it was first uttered.[2]  But given the state of sectional conflict in the ante-bellum period and the resulting civil war it would be difficult to describe our neighbours as constituting a cohesive and all-powerful territorial juggernaut. Frances Carroll’s study of the 1842 Webster Ashburton treaty and the north-east boundary between British North America and the U.S., shows that the operation of the American federation in matters of territorial acquisition involved considerable give and take between the federal and state levels of authority (Carroll, 2001: 267-276). And yes, the republic was able to muster an attack on Mexico –invading Mexico City in 1847 – and acquiring Texas (1845).  California was brought in (1849) as was Oregon (1846). Through acts of aggression, ruse, soft or hard diplomacy, the U.S. acquired much new and valuable territory. But once this was achieved how was the new territory to be fenced off?   Did the U.S. have the capability and willingness to enforce its border in a manner compatible with our 20th century understanding of it. Torston Feyes argues that circa 1900 the American state apparatus was unable to marshal sufficient power to control immigration, especially on the country’s eastern or Atlantic flank (Feys, 2014).  This suggests in the very least a certain lack of control at the republic’s border lines.

Another example comes to mind.  Think of the dividing line between the Confederate states and those loyal to the Union during the civil war of 1861-1865. How was it marked off? And exactly where was the line?  Donald Meinig refers to a wide swath of territory hedged in between the extreme south and the extreme (Yankee) north extending from the western portion of Virginia toward eastern Kansas and beyond.  These areas contained juxtaposing mosaics of pro-union and pro-secession political and social cultures. Within these limits there extended a narrower and very dangerous band of territory governed for the duration of the war by guerrilla bands, bushwhackers and the like with no consistent adherence to either side (Meinig, 1993: 486-487). Short of lining up army troops on either side, it was next to impossible to prevent citizens of the Confederacy from crossing in the direction of the north, across the Ohio River, or vice versa, if one thinks of their counterparts in the north. Still more difficult it was to prevent those thousands of former slaves from flocking to the north, once their Emancipation was proclaimed in January of 1863.  Lincoln summed it up well in stating that there was no suitable line, whether straight or crooked to divide the Confederacy from the Union.  If the border be the line between the free and the slave states, “we shall find a little more than one-third of its length are rivers, easy to be crossed and populated, or soon to be populated, thickly upon both sides;” the remainder of the border consisted mainly of surveyor’s lines, “over which people may walk back and forth without any consciousness of their presence.”  (Meinig, 1993: 500) The fashioning of a border between north and south in this context of civil war quite possibly calls to mind the relative impotence, in the mid 19th century, of the U.S. state apparatus, in terms of border enforcement.

During the British regime, Canada was possessed of neither a strong nor a single voice in matters territorial. From the late 18th century period up to Confederation in 1867 the country was split up into the 4-5 colonies that comprised British North America, each with a limited degree of self-governance. All foreign affairs involving the U.S. or any other power were handled and in the main governed by imperial interests. This held true even after Confederation.  It was not until the 1920s that Canada began negotiating treaties on its own.  Yet Canada, although a British dominion, did exercise some border oversight, irrespective of British superintendence. The decision to build  the nation’s first transcontinental, the CPR, in the 1880s within a few hundred kilometres of the Canadian-American border was intended to insure Canada’s claim to what were then known as the north west territories. The territory was to be kept out of the hands of Uncle Sam –not to mention the Métis and Amérindiens.  The fact that an American railwayman (William Van Horne) had to be brought in to build the CPR did not offset the geopolitics of the situation.  Another example can be cited:  the strategic placement of two maxim machine guns at either end of the Chilkoot Pass during the Klondike in the later 1890s.  The measure was designed to remind the many thousands of American gold prospectors of the need to behave, after all they were in a foreign country. The Klondike gold-diggers were somewhat more restrained than their counterparts who moved into the Fraser Canyon of B.C. in 1858 and the Cariboo District during the 1860s.

European Perspective on Border-making: Vienna and Westphalia

Both Canada and the U.S. spent the late 19th and 20th centuries taking charge of their territory, and making arrangements and policy around the border. Recent scholarship shows us that the European powers as well spent much of the 19th century, redefining their domestic territories and national borders. The participants at the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) set about renegotiating the boundaries of Europe, after the chaotic rampages of Bonaparte’s troops from one end of the continent to the other. The diplomatic framework would hold for a century, until the Versailles round of 1918-19.  At the outset, the three main victors had a good deal of difficulty agreeing among themselves: The British were watchful of Russia which in turn had designs on Poland; the Austrians kept an eye on the Prussians who were after Saxony and a piece of Poland. It eventually became politic, in Prince Metternich’s view, that the French be made party to the discussion although that was not initially intended.[3]  The result of the discussion between the big four – Austria, Prussia, Russia, Britain – was a multilateral framework capable of housing potentially hostile alliances (Kissinger, 1956).   Within the framework, insofar as it did not threaten the diplomatic structure, there was room for accommodation within nations that were to become, and between nations that needed to set their boundaries.

Henry Kissinger glowingly points to the ensuing century without war as an outstanding achievement of the Congress of Vienna.  Yet other issues of a territorial nature were part and parcel of the negotiations going on at, around and after the Congress. The Second Treaty of Paris (1815) which came in the wake of the congress – and Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo – provided for a return to the French borders of 1790.  This decision was to be followed by the preparing of a topographical map in order to set down clearly where all the border lines should be, in accordance with the status quo ante bellum (Di Fiore, 2017: 47).  A number of decisions were taken at Congress: Russia was to receive Poland but give back Galicia to Austria; Prussia was to be given only part of Saxony but the pill was sweetened by the addition of land in Westphalia and on the west bank of the Rhine; a new kingdom of the Netherlands united Belgium and the United Provinces, and so on.  The sum total of these territorial rearrangements represented a field day for cartographers.

A key achievement of the Congress of Vienna was the enshrining of the principle of the territorialisation of state political power on an exclusive basis (Alvarez-Lozano, 2017: 52). Sovereignty was no longer to be defined in patrimonial or jurisdictional terms, as was the case not uncommonly during the medieval and modern period, when this bishopric or that feudal right was promised to an outside institution, prince or king. In the medieval-modern era a variety of political actors could exercise some portion of the sovereignty over the same territory: city states, monarchies, the papacy, church institutions, guilds and corporations and city leagues. With the advent of the territorial premise of state authority, all institutions, all levels of authority were to be nested under a single state authority (Branch, 2011: 9-10; 18-19).  There being a good number of states in Europe, this form of exercise required precise linear boundaries. These were increasingly supplied by maps, prepared by royal or private cartographers (Branch, 2011: 13). The process culminated in decisions taken at the Congress of Vienna, but it was to some extent manifest earlier on, in treaties defining borders by the late 18th century, for example the agreement delineating the border between French and Spanish possessions on the island of Santo Domingo in 1777  (Alvarez-Lozano, 2017: 52).

Did the Congress represent a new beginning in the advent of state territorialisation? Perhaps instead that honour belongs to the Peace of Westphalia negotiated in 1648, which some believe first articulated the concept of territorial sovereignty. (Britannica, Peace of Westphalia)  This is true but only to a limited extent. One expert reminds us that there was no cartographic language or series of maps referenced in the Westphalia accord.: “after naming a place such as a town, the treaty listed an exhaustive collection of subjurisdictions, economic resources, and other associate rights or privileges – territorial and non-territorial  – all of which had to be explicitly named to be included.” (Branch, 2011: 17) What was actually enshrined in the (European) doctrine of international affairs was the concept of state sovereignty. The Peace which closed out the Thirty Years war, much of which took place on German territory, provided for the representation of each of the 300 German principalities.  The intended result on the part of the victors was a watering down of any pretense of overarching dominion over these small states on the part of the Austrian Habsburg-dominated Holy Roman Empire (Palmer-Colton, 1965: 126, 130).   Each of these principalities was to be allowed to conduct its own diplomacy and sign its own treaties. The peace was explicit on the matter of state sovereignty, not on state borders. The Peace was very much in keeping with the geopolitics in early modern Europe which from the late 15th to the late 17th century witnessed the emergence of a plurality of states competing and interacting with one another on the European continent and overseas.  In this situation no single empire or super power was able to dominate the others.  There was no single hegemonic force, rather there were always several players each looking out for themselves foremost and yet all having to beware of the potential impact of any action on the overall diplomatic equilibrium. (Kennedy, 1987: 21, 29).

Not particularly manifest in the Westphalia accord, the geographical implications of state sovereignty is something that would gradually develop in the European consciousness during the ensuing years.  Chandra Mukerjki argues that France was headed in the direction of territorial reorganization on a national basis by the late 17th century during the heyday of royal absolutism. The physical transformation of the material environment helped produce this first modern state (Mukerjki, 1997).  The royal imprint upon the landscape was visible not just at Versailles – the gardens were as significant a showcase of the royal power as the palace – but as well in terms of the Fortresses on the eastern border with the German states, (the brainchild of Vauban) and the canals, roads, port cities throughout the kingdom. The artist Vernet produced a number of giant paintings showing the magnificence and power of the new villes portuaires. On the Atlantic coast, the royal authority, in the shape of the bureau of the Customs left another indelible mark, a mark of authority.   Customs agents patrolled on land and at sea – “à pied, à cheval, ou à patache” (vessel) in an effort to protect the French jurisdiction from smugglers bringing in illegal English and Dutch imports. They were a familiar site these customs agents de la Ferme, in the harbours and along the Atlantic shoreline. Material evidence of the paths they walked on and the cabins they took shelter in still survive  (Lespagnol, 2000: 352).

The high point of the territorialisation of sovereignty in Europe was reached during the 19th century, especially during the period 1850-1880 (Di Fiore 2017: 37).  Various treaties defining border lines were worked out in Europe throughout the 19th century:  between Spain and Portugal, (1864) France and Spain, (three treaties of Bayonne: 1856, 1862, 1866) Belgium and France (1831), France and Italy (1860). A concomitant process of ordering territory inside each nation was also occurring: the drawing of the border line, mapping of roads and railroads, the accumulation of geographic knowledge and its utilization by a state bureaucracy comfortably ensconced in the nation’s capital city. The imposition of the national language, the celebration of the national capital and other imagined symbols of national belonging helped produce a more cohesive nation-state [4] (Branch, 2011: 22).    The same Western powers, in this era of the bourgeois conquérants, began mapping and defining their possessions overseas, for example in Africa, the better to determine who owned what and better still what was to be conquered (Bassett, 1994. Morazé, 1957).

As indicated above, France represents a good example of the progress of political territorialisation, especially within its borders.  The centralization of the state’s power, already evident in the late 17th century, was given further impetus by the Révolution’s creation of the structure of the départements, which, in 1790 cover the map of France, taking the place of the old provinces. The restoration of the monarchy in 1814-15, will not undo the system of the departments, – the Sous-préfet reporting to the Préfet, who in turn reports to Paris. The advent of home postal delivery in the rural districts throughout France in 1829-30 assisted the advance of  la centralisation. Dictionaries of place names were compiled by the postal service and in 1847 a comprehensive investigation was undertaken in order to get a precise idea of the postal habits of the rural French.[5]   The eventual pattern of the railways, in the 19th century which converge (or move out from) the center of the territorial web, Paris, demonstrates this reordering of national territory around a central key national metropolis (Branch, 2011: 22, 26).

Borders are Made by and for Whom?

Borders should be viewed as one part of a wider territorial context that includes the emergence of what appear to be more cohesive nation states. As such they are part of a historical process, a historical era, a bygone one in the view of Walther and Retaillé (Walther-Retaillé, 2015).  Because they are historical – i.e. human constructions in time and space – we should accept the observations of Di Fiore and Alvarez-Lozano that they can be the result of the interactions, collisions of different agencies. Borders are not a set of a priori. They are not a permanent structure and they are not the reflection of a single power or agency.  They were made over time, and presumably can be unmade. Or perhaps more accurately they can survive and evolve in a state of constant tension.  The state, in the matter of setting of the Iberian borders, takes charge of negotiations, hires the topographical personnel and sends them with instructions to the border districts. Yet upon arrival these boundary commissioners play a game of give and take with the locals, who have their own customs, their own traditions of sharing resources across the border between Spain and Portugal. Some of these arrangements will make it into the final version of the treaty in 1868 (Alvarez-Lozano, 2017:  57).

Borders are not timeless (intemporelles) creations, nor are they imposed by a single supreme state agency. Di Fiore, stresses that local practices, vernacular border cultures makes themselves felt here and there in the border lands throughout Europe, despite official rules and supervision by the governments or the state instance involved. They call into question a unitary view of la nation. Overall there is a process of give and take between the priorities of state territoriality, how and where the border the border should be, and the vision of local peasant societies, rooted to particular ways of doing things and inhabiting their space since time immemorial. The resulting tension – locals vs the state – can lead to episodic patterns of disobedience, for example the removal or relocation of boundary stones or poles by locals along the French-Spanish border, or along the border between the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the Papal State (Di Fiore, 2017: 41-42). The tension can also result in the enshrinement of certain local customs and practices in formal agreements between countries. The continued access of mountain villagers, to valleys and pastures they traditionally used but which, following the cessation of Savoie and Nice to France in 1860, were now located across the border in Italy; such access was provided for by virtue of a signed formal agreement between governments (Di Fiore, 2017: 47).  Similarly a formal agreement in 1840 gave peasants living along the border of the Two Sicilies with the Papal state access to wood, and grazing areas on either side of the line. The locals can have an impact on the making of a border.  Herzog argues that possession, not diplomacy was historically a determining factor in the making of borders.  And the peasants were the ones who possessed the land (Herzog, 2015). The state was not the only player in the process.

A border is an inhabited space.  It can be crossed by smugglers – some used dogs to carry their contraband (Robb, 2018) – or by peasants leading their sheep to a valley, or by seasonal migrants, headed from the Département du Nord, toward Belgium and more specifically perhaps toward Bruxelles for temporary work (Di Fiore, 2017: 44.).   Border populations might consist of linguistically, or culturally hybrid peoples:  Polish-speaking Germans in East Prussia, German-speaking Slavs or Baltic peoples in Central Europe; German-speaking Frenchmen in Alsace before the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), French-speaking Germans afterward (Di Fiori, 2017: 46). So just as the state was not the only political instance in the definition of a border, so were the populations inhabiting a border land not a mere copie conforme of the parent countries to which they belonged. There was cultural non-conformity, and a plurality of agencies affecting the construction of the border. The imagined community of the nation, to borrow an established concept, does not have complete control of the field, in border areas.  At least, it would seem,  not in Europe in the 19th century.


What does all this mean if we bring the discussion back to North America and the making of the Canadian-American border? The key lesson from our European excursus is that the border is not a given:  it has never always meant the same thing.   It has evolved over time.  In the era of the French and British empires, from the point of view of the Christianised domiciliés for whom trade must always accompany peace in the matters of men, travelling up and down the Hudson-Lake Champlain-Richelieu corridor, there was really no border in the 18th century. There was little capacity to control their movement back and forth. With the advent of the treaty of 1783, which established the new Republic of the USA, a border now separated the new republic of the U.S. with the British colonies; but God help us if it were to interfere with the important matter of trade from the Lake Champlain valley through the Richelieu and into the British colony next door. Trade embargos which emerged in 1807-1808 as a prelude to war in 1812-14, would result in whole-scale smuggling by the Lake Champlain Americans north into Lower Canada (Muller, 1950).  The border existed but it was not supposed to prevent trade.  Later in the 19th century, following decisions taken at and after the Congress of Vienna, the concept of the border was reworked to become a functional complement to the territorialisation of sovereignty, where geographic order and unity are intended to build the nation. But for the U.S. which entered a downward spiralling process of compromise (Missouri 1820), contention (Kansas-Nebraska 1854) and disintegration (Civil War 1861-1865) the border, is little more than a line on a map. The Americans could no more contain us, their neighbours, than they could themselves. This would eventually change. Those lines upon the map would come to have importance later on.  This importance was a function of an entirely new social, economic and geopolitical context that emerged just prior to and after the turn of the 20th century. The border would become part of a wider geographical construction as the U.S. and Canada undertook to implement the territorialisation of their respective sovereignties. Automobile travel, cross-border trade and smuggling would require networks of border stations and officers. By the 1920s our two countries entered a regime of bordering that would prevail for the next 75 years. That regime is now a thing of the past. But it is in much need of careful attention, from scholars who can and hopefully will explore the ins and outs of its genesis, its antecedents and its consequences.

We live in a post 9-11 era, with surveillance at the border, the airports, on the internet, at city traffic lights and from satellites up above. In our new age security services hot on the trail of potential terrorists are the new priests patrolling the streets – to borrow a metaphor from F.R. Scott’s “Malice in Blunderland”.  I am not sure that this regime predicated on the politics of surveiller and punir will last forever. Will we become helplessly confined like those 17th inmates of the Parisian Hôpital Général studied by Foucault in his study of madness and civilization? There may very well be a crack on both sides of the borderline.  That is where and how the light will get through. The poets are always right:  they have to be!

Notes de bas de page

[1] See newspaper report in La Presse 25 août 2017: “Migrants du chemin Roxham à la residence permanente”.  My thanks to photo-journalist David Himbert for his collaboration. Canadians living in the vicinity have started to lend a hand to the refugees, offering emotional support.  A local group called Bridges not Borders was set up in Hemmingford in December of 2017. This grass-roots approach puts one in mind of similar efforts to welcome African-American refugees escaping along the Underground Railroad in the 1850s. Running scared they were fleeing from a very punitive Fugitive Slave Law passed by the U.S. Congress in August of 1850.

[2] By this slogan Polk the U.S. presidential candidate in the 1844 election intended that the border between the U.S. and British territories in the Pacific North West should be set at 54 degrees latitude, considerably far north of where it is today, along the 49th parallel.

[3] Metternich was plenipotentiary for the Austrian Empire.

[4] The Austrian empire, composed at it was of many nationalities, languages and ethnic groups was an exception to the single-nation premise.

[5] The two sources consulted, Melot and Dauphin et al., do not agree on the dates. The former gives 1829 as a starting date of rural home postal delivery, the latter 1830 .  See Melot 2002: 96. Dauphin et al. 1991: 27-28.

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