An Undefended Border and an Undeterred Canadian

The Peace Arch monument marking the Canadian-U.S. border at Surrey, BC: Source: Wikipedia

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The Peace Arch monument marking the Canadian-U.S. border at Surrey, BC: Source: Wikipedia
The Peace Arch monument marking the Canadian-U.S. border at Surrey, BC: Source: Wikipedia

In a few weeks, I will be moving from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. You’ve probably heard of Halifax – mid-sized city on the ocean, historic citadel, clock tower, sea air, donairs. You’ve probably never heard of Lewisburg, a small town of about 5000 people on the west side of the Susquehanna River. It seems really charming, and I’d tell you about it, except I’ve spent a grand total of four and a half days there, and read exactly two books about the area.One of them tells me it’s on the river with the largest watershed east of the Mississippi (assuming, I guess, that we’re talking only about the continental United States,). The other has dozens of photographs of floods over the past two centuries, bridges washed away, and people glowering at the camera as they row their boats down the main street. So the Americanism notwithstanding, I’m inclined to think the river is pretty big.

Like most of us, I’ve done this before. I moved from London, Ontario to my first teaching job in Aarhus, Denmark in 2002; from there to Edmonton; and then to Halifax, eight years ago. All academic positions, sure, but substantially different places. Each time it became pretty obvious pretty quickly that whatever I was supposed to teach – the history of Canadian culture, Canadian environmental history, public history, the Canadian west, etc. etc. – was going to be dramatically modified based on responses in the classroom. To Danes, Canada was a curiosity, a big question mark north of and presumably distinct from the American culture they were familiar with. We could read The Backwoods of Canada, but first I was going to have to talk about Loyalists and what a “backwoods” was. (There aren’t a lot of backwoods left in Denmark.) To students from Alberta, the Group of Seven generally registered a tolerant “meh.” Talking to Nova Scotians about the impact of grain elevators on the prairies, I get polite (glazed?) stares; a student from Manitoba finally snapped to her classmates, “Lighthouses. They’re like lighthouses out here.” And now I’m going to be Talking to Americans.

Like many of us, I have a so-near-and-yet-so-far relationship with the U.S. My grandmother was American, and I watch Say Yes to the Dress, but I carry the typical Canadians-probably-have-it-better chip on my shoulder when it comes to guns, health insurance, and –re spellings. The most common reaction I’ve gotten when I tell people I’m moving to the US is how little they will know about us: “You’ll have your work cut out for you!” “You’ll have to start with a map.” “They need it!” Like many Canadians, I think Americans should know more about us – I appreciate they probably don’t need to on a daily basis, but for heaven’s sake, we’re right here, biggest neighbour/trading partner/historical twin/shared ecosystems and all that. But I don’t know whether I’ll encounter a reaction from American students more like the Danes (“We actually don’t know much about you guys”) or the Ontarioans (“We kind of know what we need to know about you guys.”)

Bucknell University is a liberal arts university, with a program in environmental humanities – a program that will welcome another NiCHEr, Andrew Stuhl, in September as well. That’s great. Not surprisingly, though, the History department hasn’t had a Canadianist before – which is why my courses are classified as “American.” (Harrumph.) But to its credit they seem keen on having someone talk about the Americas from, you know, outside the U.S., and about things that affect both our countries and cross our borders, especially in terms of the environment.

So, I’ve been thinking about how to go about this. Two classes, in particular, seem to be a great opportunity to expand America on the one hand and my sense of environmental history on the other. The first is a class on the eighteenth century. Actually, the department chair asked me to teach “The French and Indian War,” until I told him that first, since Canada was the French, we didn’t really call it that in Canada, and second, besides the guaranteed enrollments of any class with “war” in the title, there are much bigger stories about making sense of the continent. There are some pretty neat places like Louisbourg and Halifax, Fort Rouge and York Factory, that I’m betting these kids haven’t heard about (plus, I’ve no intention of faking my way through the redcoats and Paul Revere). Thanks to scholars like Jeffers Lennox, the eighteenth century seems a terrific time-place to talk about geography as territory and resources as power, about concepts of land and land use, and about means of occupation, from maps to forest grants.

The second is a class on environmental history. It’s tempting to use it purely for Cancon (God knows there’s more than enough material, and in ways that directly affect Americans – “So, guys, that big pipeline across the Ogallala Aquifer? That’s from us”), but I think it’d be good for the students and me to tackle something outside both our respective comfort zones. I like learning about where I am – it’s the great thing about a) moving to a new place and b) doing environmental history – and so how about a comparative history of rivers in North America, some Canadian (St. Lawrence, Don, Red, Mackenzie), some American (Susquehanna, Columbia, Colorado). I teach some, the kids teach me some. Or maybe something else?

What do other people do? Are there Americans in Canada, Canadians in the U.S., teaching about the other? Is it better to teach about both, or to fly the flag in its own right? I’m torn between recognizing the excitement of reaching beyond political borders, and the feeling that with Canadian Studies abroad under siege, thanks to last year’s budget cuts, it’s more important than ever to teach about Canada in foreign ports. Yes, the world does need more Canada.

NiCHE is increasingly talking about reaching beyond Canada, whether researching transborder and transoceanic connections or bringing Canadian environmental history to the world. Ironically, the last blog post I wrote for The Otter talked about the Northeast Atlantic Canada Environmental Forum and the exciting prospects in collaborations across the border, such as conversations about the Gulf of the St. Lawrence as a multinational space. Since life can be weird, I didn’t know when I wrote it that I soon would be living on the other side of that border. I’ll keep you posted.

Corollary: Anyone who has gone through airport security or a border access point in the past decade knows it’s hardly undefended. That said, the easiest crossing I ever had was six years ago at St. Stephen, New Brunswick/Calais, Maine:

Border guard (armed): Where are you coming from?

Me: Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Border guard: And what do you do there?

Me: I teach Canadian history.

Border guard: Yeah, go ahead.

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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.

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