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Walking the Line:
Travels along the Canadian/American Border

from the Preamble

To most North Americans, the border is several things. It is the momentary uneasiness we feel as we approach the Customs and Immigration building at an official border crossing. What will they ask? Will we be searched? What must I declare? When Canadians cross into the United States, they raise their eyes to the gun in the Customs officer's holster and perhaps glimpse the ubiquitous apple-green cars of the U.S. border patrol, the most powerful police force in the United States. When Americans cross into Canada, they are greeted by blunt signs telling them to leave their guns behind. There is one as you drive onto the Detroit/Windsor Ambassador Bridge after paying the toll that seems to imply that you either throw your gun into the Detroit River then and there or face unpleasant consequences at the fast-approaching Canada Customs booth.

The border is also the scene of our smuggling mythology. Everyone has a smuggling story, I learned as I travelled across the continent. Everyone has an aunt who lived in Windsor and would come home from the Hudson's Department Store in Detroit wearing an extra forty pounds poof clothing, or a grandfather who tried to smuggle margarine across at the Sault in the fifties. Everyone knows about the fast cars of Prohibition days and bottles of rum stitched into leather upholstery and the funnel beneath the Detroit River and the corrupted Customs officials just about everywhere, it seems.

But the Canada/U.S. border is also a series of local cultures that in some places embrace the line and in others are isolated by it. In the east, communities have grown up around the border, and bits of mythology stick to it like burrs to a hedge. The farther west you go, the less relevant the border becomes; it loses its dynamism and becomes little more than an isolated gate bringing focus to an empty landscape. To the native and Metis people, more than for any of the European immigrants, the border is a symbol of disruption and destruction.

from the Postscript

The line that I followed is becoming increasingly irrelevant as a regulatory barrier. In a broad sense, the movement of ideas and commodities is becoming more abstract as electronic mail and bank transfers and simulcast events erase the boundaries of time and space, the conventions by which our cultures have grown. Traffic control is also more and more removed from the actual boundary, becoming instead the scrutiny and stamping of large numbers of people and their baggage at airports. There is a minor symbol of invasion in the fact that a traveller is processed through American Customs and Immigration at Canadian airports, before ever leaving Canadian soil. The subtle shift from one cultural climate to another, like moving from sunlight into shade, never happens. The childish thrill of stepping onto foreign turf is withheld.

Again and again as I travelled along the border, I imagined its absence. Most Americans do not even notice its presence. Far from bearing weight, as it does for Canadians, the boundary for most Americans is a line on television weather maps above which there is white space and white weather-the land of cold fronts. For Canadians it is a holding line, a sea wall, sandbags resisting America. The waters slapping against the sandbags are not threatening, but when we contemplate the potential force of the body behind them, in full flood, we take silent comfort in the sandbags..

When I asked people living along the border if they would like to see it removed-what if you woke up tomorrow, I asked, and the border had been erased, ripped out? – invariably, Canadians rejected that idea. The only people who would spontaneously consider that possibility were Americans. We have different perceptions about what threatens out respective nations. The assumption around border crossings is that there will be illegal passage of household goods into Canada and illegal passage of aliens and drugs into the United States. Americans, therefore, who talk about erasing the border really assume that the regulatory functions of the border will simply be removed elsewhere, that we will become one nation, a considerably larger United States of America. They do not feel threatened by canada. Canadians, who invest relatively little in the physical defense of their border with the United States, do, however, feel threatened by the idea of losing that border. In some unarticulated and mostly polite way, Canadians feel more secure with a tidy line between them and the Americans.