How Do Handmaids Reach Ontario?

Photo of Niagara River and Falls by Daniel Macfarlane

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In Season 1 of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” (on Crave TV in Canada), after an exhausting journey on foot, we see Moira, one of the main characters, stumble through a farmer’s field, and into a barn. There, she wipes away the dust from the license plate on an old truck – “Ontario, Yours to Discover” is revealed with a full closeup to emphasize that she has made it to what one character calls “the magical land of the north.”

But there’s one little problem with this sequence of events. Namely, Ontario’s border with the United States is almost exclusively water. Where could Moira cross the Ontario border through a field? Why isn’t she wet? Did she cross a bridge? If so, how did she not realize that she was already in Canada?

Canada has an interesting role in the screen version of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The nation to the north of Gilead (aka the United States) is a sort of sanctuary from the dystopian fundamentalist Amerikkka – which maybe isn’t surprising since the author of the book upon which the series is based is the celebrated Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood. Though it started filming before Trump’s election, “The Handmaid’s Tale” has an extra resonance in the time of the Cheeto president; by using Canada as a cultural foil, the series says almost as much about that nation, or conceptions of it. Indeed, the series has become a sort of steroid for Canadian self-confidence (or smugness): a recent article calls this series “the best advertisement for Canada.”

But back to Moira’s incredible journey over the border. The only place where someone could cross into Ontario by land is west of Lake Superior, in the territory shared with Minnesota, where there are a few stretches without a river, lake, or other type of waterbody. The Great Lakes (minus Lake Michigan but including Lake St. Clair) and its connecting channels (St. Marys, St. Clair, Detroit, Niagara, and St. Lawrence Rivers) form the border for the whole of Ontario’s geographic connections to New York State, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.

So did Moira go by foot all the way from Boston to the Lake of the Woods area? That seems improbable and impossible given how much time has elapsed in the show. So this seems like a convenient elision, either just for simplicity’s sake or catering to an American audience’s lack of knowledge about their northern neighbour.

Similarly, in Season 3, when the character Emily flees for Canadian sanctuary with a baby in tow, she tries to get across a river with a relatively little bridge over it. The Canadian border officer she encounters speaks English (without a French-Canadian accent) and she is quickly in Toronto, so clearly this is meant to be Ontario (unless we are to believe that she walked thousands of kilometers with the infant to another part of Canada).

Again, assuming this is Ontario, where could Emily have crossed the border? Where is there a border waterway this small in that province? Clearly she hasn’t crossed one of the Great Lakes, and all the connecting rivers are much too large compared to what is portrayed on screen. Maybe one of the spots in the St. Lawrence or St. Marys where chains of islands leave a smaller channel to be crossed? Perhaps, but we don’t know of any place that looks like the waterway Emily traverses on screen. A river crossing into Ontario while carrying a baby would be extremely dangerous and nearly impossible.

OK, we hear you complaining that we’re just overanalyzing stuff that isn’t meant to be taken too literally. But does all this just feed into common American preconceptions that Canada is really just an extension of the United States with a few tweaks? And, from an environmental history perspective, does the show undermine how integral the water border is between the two countries?

St. Marys River between Michigan and Ontario. Source: NASA.

In fact, water is so vital that in 1909 Canada and the United States signed a treaty about their boundary waters, which also created the International Joint Commission to help with governance of their shared waters. (Shameless self-promotion: there is an edited book in the NiCHE-UCP series on this topic coming out in half a year.) The sharing and trade of natural resources has always been a vital part of the Canadian-American relationship, with water arguably the most important.

The poor representation of the water border between Ontario and the US may also be tied up in present-day immigration politics in the US. With loose talk about building impossible walls on the southern border with Mexico, “The Handmaid’s Tale” clearly uses the humane treatment of asylum seekers on the Gilead-Canada border as a contrast to the inhumane treatment to the south in real life. To make the allusion work, the show attempts to turn the border with Ontario into something more akin to the southern border with Mexico complete with land crossings and shallow river crossings (of course, tragedies occur on the southern border’s aquatic boundaries too).

Photo of Niagara River and Falls by Daniel Macfarlane

The water borders between Canada and the US matter. Although the Canada-US border is often called the world’s longest undefended border, the most populous part of Canada is defended by a natural border of the Great Lakes and rivers that surround what is popularly known as the Southern Ontario peninsula. The present-day peace between the two countries takes place not solely along an undefended land border, but also along border waters. Border waters require different kinds of bilateral relations between countries including negotiating the terms for how water will be exploited as a resource. Which raises a final question for us: how do Canada and Gilead share water?

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Daniel Macfarlane and Sean Kheraj

Daniel Macfarlane and Sean Kheraj are environmental historians, long-time NiCHE members, and quite clever.

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