Squaring Borders and Bioregions in Canadian History: Practical Strategies for Transboundary and Transnational Research

U.S.-Canada border where it cuts through Waterton Lake (Alberta). Image courtesy T.W. Buckner

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U.S.-Canada border where it cuts through Waterton Lake (Alberta). Image courtesy T.W. Buckner
U.S.-Canada border where it cuts through Waterton Lake (Alberta). Image courtesy T.W. Buckner

Tina Adcock previews a panel on bioregions and the Canadian-American border. The full presentation will appear on Wednesday 5 June, at the Canadian Historical Association meeting in Victoria.

Imaginings of place within the Canadian nation have long been marked by a tension between two perpendicular axes. The horizontal, or east-west axis is often yoked to nationalist sentiment; it binds the country together from the Pacific to the Atlantic, even as it distances and distinguishes Canadians from their neighbours to the south. The sweeping line of the Canadian-American border, in its neat bifurcation of continental space, is its most official expression. Canadian historians have traditionally buttressed this line through the Laurentian school of thought, which asserts the fundamental role of horizontal lineaments, networks, and ties in the extension and realization of the Canadian nation. More recently, historians have carefully plotted the textures and nuances of regional histories and experiences along this axis from coast to coast.

But others have looked at North America sideways, and have seen unity rather than division. They challenge the evanescent and at times artificial line that separates Canadian from American territory by pointing to the natural nation that runs along a vertical, or north-south axis. When we think of continentalism, we often think of arguments framed in economic or political terms: reciprocity, manifest destiny, free trade, and so on. Yet we know as environmental historians that vertical thinking can also be predicated on physical and geographical continuity, on drainage basins, ecological zones, and vegetation complexes that overflow political borders. In a classic essay, Dan Flores highlights the need for scholars to recognize and scrutinize these transnational areas, which he terms bioregions. “[P]olitically-derived boundaries of county, state, and national borders are mostly useless in understanding nature,” he claims. We should instead draw lines around the landscapes we study “in ways that make real sense ecologically and topographically.”[1]

The spectre of bioregionalism can raise the nationalist hackles of Canadian historians, even those of the environmental historical variety. As Graeme Wynn and Matthew Evenden noted in a recent essay, if we are persuaded by arguments in favour of a natural North American nation, what then is unique about the nature of Canada?[2] We are still working out the answer to this question in full. Our roundtable forwards this work by focusing on the continuing tension between east-west and north-south views of Canadian and North American natures, regions, and nations. We ask: how do we recognize the existence and effects of geographical regions, or bioregions, that stretch across the Canadian-American border, and yet also appreciate how that same border has enabled distinctively Canadian relationships with place and environment, mediated by specific political, social, and cultural factors, to flourish on its northward bounds?

We will tackle these questions in pragmatic fashion, by discussing our individual experiences of researching transboundary and transnational phenomena along the US-Canada border. Each of us are specialists in different regions, so we will synthesize a discussion on a national scale. Dan Macfarlane studies the environmental and transnational histories of modern technopolitical projects in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence region. Shannon Stunden Bower’s award-winning research looks at human-environment interactions in the transborder Prairies, particularly watersheds in Manitoba. Jeffers Lennox examines exchanges of geographical information between French, British, and Aboriginal actors in eighteenth-century northeastern North America. I study the transnational history of knowledge production about the Arctic in twentieth-century North America. By pooling our collective knowledge of the approaches to, challenges of, and insights gleaned from doing this kind of work, we’ll suggest new methods and perspectives that will be useful to each other and to audience members.

We focus on questions of theory and methodology because we know from personal experience that bioregional, transnational, and other kinds of comparative and international histories present real conceptual and practical challenges to historians. Ted Binnema has outlined these challenges in several recent pieces.[3] They include, but are not limited to, the need to consult more primary and secondary sources, which may involve expensive and time-consuming travel; the ability to master the histories and the historiographical traditions of several countries; the willingness (particularly in the case of bioregional studies) to cultivate an “imaginative, aggressive multidisciplinarity”; and the courage to expand the limits of our research projects, making them potentially harder to manage and to complete.

In the spirit of mutual aid and succour, then, we’ll discuss the issues we have faced in writing across regional and national borders, and in conceptualizing cross-border work. We’ll talk about the terms, literatures, and disciplinary insights we’ve found most useful—or useless. We will share strategies for conceiving and carrying out such research projects, and ways to sidestep potential and actual difficulties inherent in such enterprises. And we will ruminate on how these kinds of projects have led us, or even required us, to think differently about questions of space, place, and scale in our research.

Finally, in the course of reflecting on the intersection of continental bioregions and Canadian regions along the border, we will share our thoughts on the state of the latter in contemporary Canadian histories and historiographies. As Phil Buckner points out in the latest issue of the Canadian Historical Review, we seem to be less preoccupied with questions of region today than was the case even a decade or two ago.[4] Does the region continue to have value as a category of analysis in Canadian history? Might bioregions or transboundary regions supplement or replace traditional notions of regionality in Canadian historical scholarship to good effect? Come watch us grapple with these questions, and add your own thoughts to the discussion, if you are in Victoria this week.

Dan Macfarlane (Michigan State), Shannon Stunden Bower (Alberta), Jeffers Lennox (Wesleyan) and Tina Adcock (Rutgers) will take part in the roundtable “Squaring Borders and (Bio)regions in Canadian History.” Matthew Evenden (UBC) will be commentator and chair. It will be held on Wednesday, June 5 at 3:15-4:45 pm at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Historical Association at the University of Victoria as part of Congress 2013.

[1] Dan Flores, “Place: An Argument for Bioregional History,” Environmental History Review 18 (Winter 1994): 6.

[2] Matthew Evenden and Graeme Wynn, “54, 40 or Fight: Writing Within and Across Borders in North American Environmental History,” in Paul Warde and Sverker Sörlin, eds., Nature’s End: History and the Environment (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 215-46.

[3] “The Case for Cross-National and Comparative History: The Northwest Plains as Bioregion,” in The Borderlands of the American and Canadian Wests: Essays on Regional History of the Forty-Ninth Parallel, ed. Sterling Evans (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 17-41; “‘Most Fruitful Results’: Transborder Approaches to Canadian-American Environmental History,” in A Companion to American Environmental History, ed. Douglas Cazaux Sackman (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 615-34.

[4] Phil Buckner, “Defining Identities in Canada: Regional, Imperial, National,” Canadian Historical Review 94 (June 2013): 303.

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Assistant professor in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University. I research and teach Canadian and environmental history, with a special focus on the Arctic and Subarctic.

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