The Great Divide

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Poets and songwriters have romanticized it. Critics and commentators use its symbolism to simplify away differences. Moralists have used it as a metaphysical metaphor to proselytize—“The Great Divide.” Making meaning out of frequently contentious social relations by imagining the physical world as proxy for these complex interactions is as old as humanity itself: Earth and fire come quickly to mind but so do bodies of water and wind directions. Some landscapes, however, are more readily available, and have proven to be quite durable, as models in the past two centuries. Heights of land are visibly accessible systematized landscapes, so little surprise they are not only one of the more imaginably conceived places but have also been more hotly contested. Among others, they have been used as boundary making devices in the Royal Proclamation (1763), Treaty of Paris (1783) and several of the numbered treaties (1871-1922). The seemingly natural process of water separation and downward flow may seem innocuous enough but when such a movement enters the social world of ideas, notions of inclusion and exclusion, possession and dislocation, are hardened while the lines between the physical and the conceptual blur.

Social-spatial relations are put into practice in many ways. I am particularly interested in those landscapes which have associative meaning across cultures and societies but are deemed more ‘natural’ to one group and hence, of more authoritative value. My dissertation, “A Century of Historicizing the Height of Land Idea in the Rocky Mountain Canadian West” considers the ways in which the places (and processes) where the separation of waters occurs at a transcontinental scale have been transformed from a localized watershed concept to one invested heavily in the notions of order, inclusion and possession from afar. Nowhere has this geographical abstraction been more evident than what eventually became formalized as “The Great Divide,” the height of land (in the Canadian context) separating the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds starting at the US border and ending at the 120th meridian. The earliest attempts at “naturalizing the natural” occurred in the 1890s when the federal government attempted to put an end to Stoney (and, to a lesser degree Kutnaxa) hunting practices across the British Columbia-Northwest Territories (later Alberta) boundary by imposing this singular and unbroken height of land that would not only encompass the documented places where the waters did indeed separate but also the vast spaces in between these areas. The formalization of the transcontinental-scale height of land as “The Great Divide” was complete with the Alberta-British Columbia Interprovincial Boundary Commission (1913-1924) and its scientific-cartographical methodology. Specific passes traversing the height of land, another significant associative landscape, became sites of authority.

One of the pleasures and challenges of this kind of research has been the need to relinquish one’s comfort zone of study and traverse disciplinary boundaries. Exploring the enduring language of rhetoric inherent in “The Great Divide” idea has provided this chance. Between 1890 and 1930, “The Great Divide” idea was central to the nation building and nature subjugation process. “The Great Divide” became de rigueur for any rail or automobile tourist travelling through the Mountain Parks. Post cards, poems, travel guides and promotions all conveyed the symbolism of the intercontinental height of land. Almost every Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) Summer Camps between 1907-1930 was located astride the height of land. The eventual normalization of an idea also carries the seeds of its eventual re-interpretation, however, and by the end of the Second World War poets, writers and visual artists began to challenge the assumptions behind “The Great Divide” idea. Supporters of new ventures centering on the “Great Divide” traverse were rejected, while some questioned whether there were actually two intercontinental divides—one Atlantic/Pacific and another Arctic/Pacific. These questions mattered: The ongoing litigation over the western boundary of Treaty Eight attests to this.

Meanwhile, “The Great Divide” idea remains. Today one may experience “The Great Divide” in some highly unlikely places: Crossing the North Saskatchewan along the High Level Bridge in Edmonton (!) during the summer when “The Great Divide Waterfall” is on show, or more faithfully to its location, seated upon “The Continental Divide Chairlift” at Sunshine Village. Of course, there are literally hundreds of the more ‘mundane’ heights of land across the continent, many mapped as such and many many more others hidden away. Some are an easy stroll or accessible from the road while others, not so much. Just try not to think about which boundary you’re crossing.

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Sean Atkins

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