The difference between U.S.: The disappearing border part 1

In this series Johanu Botha, a Canadian studying public policy, and Noah Caldwell, a student of American history, will try to demystify the Canadian-American relationship through debating politics, culture, history and anything else that comes to mind. 

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Johanu Botha: Let’s stick to regions for now, but regions that are not limited to being on either side of the 49th parallel. Can you wrack that historian’s brain of yours and tell me which spot along the border is best at pretending that it doesn’t exist? In other words, which region enjoys the greatest cross border solidarity? In terms of political culture, mutual dependency on the same resources, intermittently shared public services such as firefighters, etc. Is it the American Midwest and the Canadian prairies, is it Quebec and New England, Vancouver and Seattle…the Yukon and Alaska?!  I have my hunches, but the honour’s all yours.

NC: A fine topic. And relevant, too, at least concerning shared resources—check out Thomas Walkom’s column in the Toronto Star a few weeks ago about the North American perimeter security pact. Canadian Press has just dredged up information that American agents may soon be able to patrol north of the border alongside their Canadian counterparts, carrying weapons and possibly being immune to Canadian criminal prosecution. Through a Patriot Act Post 9-11 lens it is the pinnacle of collaborative pan-continental security, but through any other lens it is a preposterously scary foray into America’s old Big Stick mentality. But, this is non-regional cross-border collaboration, and our task of zooming in will hopefully unearth more productive convergences.

The first thought that comes to an American when probing shared border similarities is that the representation of states is slim across the northern boundary, compared to the full spectrum. Eleven states—about one-fifth—border Canada by land (if you include Michigan-Ontario across the miniscule St. Clair River). By contrast, nine out of 13 provinces and territories lick the Land of the Free with their southern (or western) tongues.

This is useless cocktail party trivia, but it means that we must caution ourselves against hasty conclusions that similarities between bordering states and provinces are stronger than those without shared borders. For instance, the fishing industry of Newfoundland and Labrador may mirror that of southern New England—and share the woes of cod depletion and adapting to the new world of deep sea trawling—but the two areas are a thousand miles apart.

I don’t mean to overladen the topic with caveats, so let’s go forth and zoom in. There is one region whose trans-boundary sympathies exist, but are weak—a near miss in my book: the American northeast and Quebec (or, if you prefer to inject a millennium-old Continental rivalry into a slightly unrelated discourse, we’re talking about New England and New France, respectively.) It would be disingenuous not to acknowledge the cultural and economic gifts these two regions have given each other. Many French Canadian families have made their homes in northern New England, adding not a few Charbonneaus and Bombards and Brodeurs to any given town’s phone book. Hydro Quebec sends Vermont a large portion of its energy (more in the future, perhaps, if Vermont’s sole nuclear plant does not get its license renewed), and given the current hoopla over the Keystone pipeline, such a non-controversial energy supply is significant.

But the similarities end there. One trip to rural Quebec will convince any New Englander of the deep chasm caused by the Franco-Anglo language barrier. The whole concept of Quebec’s organization into parishes, a socio-religious way of life that lasted through the middle of the twentieth century, is foreign to the secularized New Englander. Just to drive the point home, any self-respecting Vermonter can taste the inferiority of Quebec maple syrup as soon as it hits the palate.

(My runner-up for Near Miss was the Rust Belt and Ontario, though I don’t know enough about the latter to say for sure; any thoughts? My hunch was that the degree of economic destitution between, say, Detroit and Toronto, is great enough to side against their mutual cohesion—but I’d love to be proven wrong.)

I submit that the greatest cross-border convergence is a close tie between the Pacific Northwest and the Prairies. The mere fact that these two geographic terminologies are commonly accepted to include areas of both countries speaks volumes about their respective cohesion.

In America, the Prairies may be defined somewhat loosely as, if you’ll excuse the excessive overuse of orienteering vocabulary, the Northwestern and Southwestern Midwest, extending east from the Rockies, west from the Mississippi River, North From Texas, and South from Minnesota (but we’ll stick with the parts no more than two states away from the border for present purposes). In Canada geographic simplicity reigns, and the Prairies are Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. The unchanging geomorphology of the land as it passes from America to Canada and back again shouldn’t be dismissed; since the semi-arid grassland habitat is identical, the crop cultivation is nearly identical, too (wheat mostly, but varying degrees of corn and, recently, biofuel crops).  I may risk sounding too geographically deterministic, but shared ecology begets shared livelihood.

How much do the two regions see themselves as one? I don’t have polling data on that handy (do you?) but it’s enough to approach higher education communally. Manitoba has tuition reciprocity agreements with Minnesota, Wisconsin, North/South Dakota and Iowa, which almost 45,000 students took advantage of in 2011. Given that most states don’t even offer that for each other, the cross-border sentiment that What’s Good For Your Kid Is Good For My Kid goes a long way.

Though the excess of tar sands in Alberta and fracking in North Dakota is regrettable, it demonstrates that parts of each region follow each other closely regarding resource exploitation and the deprioritizing of the environment  (Granted, the obese girth of Montana lies between N.D. and Alberta, but if we’re talking regions, we’re talking regions.)

How does the Pacific Northwest compete? Firstly, by its shared history of colonization. Unlike New England and Quebec, whose colonial histories were perpetually separated by language and Mother Country (besides a decade or so between the Seven Years War and the Revolution, a time when there were certainly no easy cross-border agglomerations) the Pacific Northwest came to be as one entity. Or, if you look at it another way, without any single entity controlling it. The Spaniards were most heavily vying for the area until the end of the 18th century, whereupon the British began to chart the area. Oh, and the Russians. Can’t forget the Russians. Then the Americans, of Lewis and Clark fame. For two hundred fifty years of European settlement (ok, settlement by crusty-toed loggers and salty-haired sailors) no border separated the region.

Perhaps it is ironic that the boundary running along the 49th parallel was a product of the 1846 Oregon Treaty, which solved Pacific Northwest border disputes but separated artificially regions previously indistinguishable.

Regardless, the border did little to curb side-by-side cultural development. Environmental zeal is arguably the greatest in Washington/Oregon and British Columbia, respective to America and Canada. (Greenpeace was founded in Vancouver, and, well, if you’ve seen “Portlandia” you get what I mean about Oregon.) Government officials and academics from Washington and B.C. have teamed up to evaluate the health of marine biota in the Puget Sound and other shared waters, looking out for both sea life and fishing livelihoods; since 1985 Canada and the U.S. governments have jointly managed and regulated salmon fishing in the shared waters.

Your turn. You notice I stayed away from politics, anticipating your wisdom in that realm (no pressure). And, I proposed a tie, dancing around a decision—are your convictions on the topic any more solid than mine?

Johanu Botha will respond in the next installment of The Difference Between U.S.



Noah Caldwell, a native Vermonter, studied history at McGill and politics in Edinburgh. He now lives in Colorado and studies the complex dynamics between waiting tables and launching a new media journalism career. Follow him at: @noahgcr

Johanu Botha is a student of public policy and political philosophy. His hobbies include the mandolin and intermittent bouts of existential angst. You can reach him at