Essay

THE DEFINING BORDER

‘It is physically invisible, geographically illogical and emotionally inescapable’

Peter C. Newman December 31 2001
Essay

THE DEFINING BORDER

‘It is physically invisible, geographically illogical and emotionally inescapable’

Peter C. Newman December 31 2001

THE DEFINING BORDER

‘It is physically invisible, geographically illogical and emotionally inescapable’

PETER C. NEWMAN

We casually call it the 49th parallel, yet the boundary that divides Canada from the United States runs along that oft-cited latitude only from Middlebro,

Man., to White Rock in British Columbia. The seriously urbanized areas of Ontario and Quebec (including Toronto,

Ottawa and Montreal), plus most of the Maritimes and the more populated parts of Vancouver Island, lie well south of that demarcation line.

Until Sept. 11, such mundane facts, like the border itself, barely intruded into the Canadian consciousness. But the siege mentality of the Bush White House has turned that meandering boundary into North Americas hottest political issue. It has unexpectedly become the fighting ground for Canadas future. Washingtons pressure tactics to impose its rules threaten to define the limits of our citizenship by demoting Canada to a junior partnership in a political entity known as the NAP—the North American Perimeter.

In the tranquil past, Americans seldom contemplated their northern boundary. They viewed the land that lay north of the dividing line as America’s attic—taking their sparsely populated garret for granted, unless Canadians made too much noise to be ignored. But for some of us, as concerned and sympathetic as we may be about keeping out potential terrorists, giving up control over that geographical and psychological barrier that delineates our subcontinent is too high a price to pay.

Our border has defined us. It has been the symbolic barrier that created us as a people, separating us from the compatible but far from identical society to our south. Canadian diplomat Hugh Keenleyside best defined the border, when he wrote in 1929: “It is physically invisible, geographically illogical, militarily indefensible, and emotionally inescapable.”

“The United States,” as former federal Social Credit leader Robert Thompson said in 1963, “is our friend, whether we like it or not.” True enough. But that doesn’t make us the same, nor

should it allow them to ignore our differences.

The Canadian frontier was settled, first by the Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading posts, then by Canadian Pacific Railway construction sheds, and finally by the influx of that most quintessential of Canadian institutions, bank branches. By the time the first wave of immigrants arrived, they found themselves in a field office environment that demanded deference to well-entrenched authority. No Wild West for us.

In contrast, the Americans fought for their independence, then waged a bitter civil war to restructure their society. Their frontier was ruled by a gunslinger mentality that challenged authority and made a virtue of the “every-man-forhimself” Darwinian ethic that still governs their actions.

In contrast, we sleep-walked into independence in 1867, having dispatched an alcoholic prime minister to bargain with British statesmen anxious to jettison the burden of administering a troublesome and troubled colony.

Those divergent beginnings still colour our nationalities. Our inglorious past endowed us with a passive sense of patriotism that stresses collective survival over individual excellence. Lacking any manifest destiny to spur us on, we huddle together, living out the notion that competition counts for less than compassion.

All that may be ancient history, but in the process two disparate societies have evolved on either side of the border whose status is now in play. For the first time since that demarcation line was initially drawn up after the Treaty of Paris in 1763, its stewardship is in dispute.

Determined by the Sept. 11 massacre to keep potential terrorists at bay, the Americans are demanding that Canada adopt common standards of immigrant admission and rejection. Their intent is honourable, their priority is urgent, but their ultimate impact threatens to transform the twin nations that share the upper half of the North American continent into one.

Despite our common cause in trying to crush terrorism, profoundly significant values set us apart. Simply put, Americans and Canadians have adopted a markedly different way of looking at the world.

Whatever his failings,

George W Bush personifies both the newly aggressive American stance in international issues and the Imperial Presidency. It’s his way or no way.

A few examples:

■ During a recent United Nations session on moving forward on the sensitive, comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, John Bolton, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control, boasted about the fact that his vote was recorded (148-1) as the sole dissenting.

■ The Americans continue to be the only major power that refuses to support former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy’s push for a global treaty banning the use of landmines, which maimed so many of the young in Third World countries.

■ President Bush rattled the international community when he withdrew U.S. support for the Kyoto Accord, which calls for a 5.2 per cent reduction, by 2012, of 1990 levels of emissions that cause global warming.

■ Similar unilateral American vetoes have been aggressively pursued on such issues as the establishment of a permanent International Criminal Court; disallowance of the international trade in small arms; putting into practice a system of effectively banning biological weapons. On these and other equally urgent topics, Canada and the U.S. are dug in on opposing sides.

These are differences not of ideology, but of humanitarian values, and they’re well worth preserving. It is only by perpetuating our border as a meaningful barrier that we can retain the political will to back such initiatives. Canadian rules for the admission of immigrants and refugees ought to be just as tough as those of the U.S., but they must remain ours to formulate and impose.

Canada may be a loose federation of wildly diverse regions on the margin of the civilized world, but there is a quiver of common intent which holds us to-

gether: that no matter how tempting it may be, we do not want to become Americans. Maintaining an effective border between us remains essential to Canada’s survival.

By year’s end, it is clear that the pivotal Canadian political debate of 2002, and the election that will follow two years later, will be the stark choice between total economic and, eventually, political integration with the United States, or holding on to what remains of our political independence—and fighting for more.

The influential Commons finance committee has already recommended harmonization of Canadian and American policies on just about everything, and the idea is gaining currency inside the Chrétien cabinet and among Ottawa’s senior civil servants. “It kind of sounds like there would be no country left,” comments one of the few influential dissenters, John McCallum, the former Royal Bank chief economist and parliamentary secretary to Finance Minister Paul Martin.

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney has advocated a customs union with the U.S. that would virtually eliminate the border. His call for such a drastic expansion of the original U.S. Free Trade Agreement that he negotiated in 1988 would eliminate any meaningful Canadian control of our border.

This is no academic exercise. The rocket-thrust of America’s political, military and cultural imperatives is preparing to suck us into a dependency so profound that Canada would exist in name alone. In such a doomsday scenario, our only remaining distinction would be the right to celebrate Thanksgiving twice a year.

It hardly seems worth the trouble. ED