An Introduction to the Borders and Boundaries of the Canadian North

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Editor’s Note: This is the introductory post in the Northern Borders and Boundaries series. You can read other posts in this series here.

Throughout the North American Arctic, rapid environmental change is transforming relationships between human communities, non-human nature, and the borders and boundaries that delineate and assign meaning to northern spaces. Across Inuit Nunangat, for example, the dramatic loss of sea ice is simultaneously disrupting the ability of Inuit to travel to winter hunting grounds and creating new sea lanes that facilitate the intensification of international shipping and resource exploration. The increasing rapidity of these and related socio-environmental changes has led to a widespread recognition that the Arctic is deeply entangled with political, economic, and ecological developments occurring beyond the boundaries of the region.[1] As global forces alter northern environments, they have also reshaped how northern borders are governed. All too often, however, the entanglement of northern environmental change and arctic borders and boundaries is framed as a contemporary issue. Although the current “collision of global warming and global investment” has led to dramatic changes throughout the circumpolar world, “New North” narratives, argues historian Andrew Stuhl, are neither new nor innocent.[2] Throughout the twentieth century, appeals to the idea of the “New North” have obscured the colonial and capitalist roots of ongoing and emergent issues in the Arctic, and marginalized those northerners whose lives and communities have been circumscribed by the demarcation and enforcement of political borders and colonial boundaries.

We are excited to introduce this series which examines the vast conceptualization of borders and boundaries as they apply to the northern regions of North America. This is the first series emerging from the Northern Borders Project following a virtual workshop on the histories of animals and borders in the North American Arctic. The idea for the project emerged from an ongoing conversation between ourselves and our colleague Glenn Iceton concerning the historical and geographical relationships among dynamic northern environments and those political borders and conceptual boundaries that mark the limits of authority, territory, and sovereignty in the region. As a group of northern environmental historians, we believe that there has been greater academic interest in borders, boundaries, and borderlands in the more populated, southerly regions of North America. But despite distinct socio-ecological contexts, we suggest that an engagement with northern borders brings into relief the historical and geographical contours of border and boundary-making processes. Our collaboration began with a focus on border- and boundary-crossing animals as a way to expand our analytical frame beyond anthropocentric conceptualizations of border-work and boundary making. While we are still very much interested in how animal studies intersects with northern and borders studies, we feel there remains a wider range of border issues beyond animal studies that have yet been unexplored in scholarly writing. Building on the workshop, we solicited contributions that explore the diverse and dynamic histories and geographies of borders and boundary-making processes in the North American Arctic.

In recent years there has been a flourishing of innovative borderlands and trans-boundary research among the disciplines of environmental history and historical geography.[3] The broad historiography of border studies in North America has focused primarily on borderlands or border zones along the US-Mexican border or the 49th parallel between Canada and the US and the Great Lakes region.[4] Much of this literature has tended to focus on the idea of the frontier, or frontier zones – an idea which has also been used to discuss the North. Though these studies have ranged broadly in scope and have provided us significant insights into bioregionalism, gender, race, settler colonialism and coloniality, policing and social control, and modernity and technopolitics, the North has been scantily included, by comparison, in this growing scholarship.

Of course, many northern scholars have explored these concepts, though not always in an explicit border studies way.[5] There is a strong body of scholarship on Northern and Arctic exploration for example, which engages with cultural, racial, and gender boundaries. Literature on early exploration also alerts us to the ways in which exploration brought culturally diverse human groups into contact with each other and with “new” land.[6] The work of Morris Zaslow, foundational to the field of Northern history, deals with the ways that southern economies and institutions transplanted into the North, blurring regional boundaries of cores and peripheries.[7] There is a growing body of literature among northern scholarship that explores the onset of resource development and extractivism across the North as it further drew the region into capitalist relations and created environmental change. Historians and historical geographies have examined mining, hydroelectricity, and oil within the context of the North and many have focused on environmental hardships created in the region as a result of resource extraction and the effects this has had on Indigenous-settler relations.[8]

Arctic sovereignty has also been a popular topic in Northern history since the 1980s, with Shelagh Grant and Bill Morrison publishing on the topic, but more recently scholars have given increased attention to Indigenous sovereignty in the North.[9] Much of this new focus on Indigenous sovereignty in the North can be traced back to more local or regional community histories coming from the North, in both academic and local publications. In works like Julie Cruikshank’s Life Lived Like a Story, the idea of borders and boundaries in both direct and abstract ways is addressed by the three Athapaskan and Tlingit women Cruikshank collaborated with. Since her work in the 1990s though, there has been an outpouring of community histories from the Yukon, the NWT, and Nunavut themselves that discuss aspects of their historical cultures of importance to them and demonstrate a continuing connection between the past and contemporary problems in the Arctic and Subarctic.[10]

Having worked with First Nations in the North throughout our doctoral and postdoctoral studies, Northern Borders Project collaborators noticed there are significant aspects to the lived experience of the North (such as outside-imposed borders, and restrictive cultural, social, and ideological boundaries) that haven’t yet been thoroughly explored within academic history but have been directly addressed in these local and community histories. Learning about the lived experience of northern residents over time helps us understand the relationality and multiplicity of borders. We remember that borders and border studies are not only bi-national, but international, intranational, and, often, grounded in place. These community or regional histories also highlight the importance of considering less obvious borders, beyond the geopolitical, such as those emerging from land claims. In widening the scope of border studies beyond the political administration or state level, it becomes clear that bordered or bounded spaces are also contested sites of knowledge production. 

We are also reminded that the contemporary North is faced with many cross-boundary issues, as we’ve recently witnessed with the conflict around oil drilling in the  Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. While there is a substantial body of scholarship examining wildlife and conservation in the North, these works have largely been confined to individual political jurisdictions and there remains a significant scholarly gap calling for future work on animal studies and borders in the North – especially examining the ways in which animals transcend borders. In this region, the role of animal migration and conservation is particularly important both historically and presently. For example, Indigenous hunting and trapping activities have been affected by the imposition of political boundaries, southern bureaucracies, and the respective colonial conservation regimes. Since the late twentieth century, attempts at establishing wildlife co-management boards have led to ongoing conflict between Indigenous peoples and federal or Territorial governments.[11]

In comparing southern border studies with the above-mentioned scholarship on the North, it is clear that the Northern region of North America has its own set of challenges, and its own relationship, with borderlands, border crossings, and boundaries more widely. Examining the range of northern scholarship, it is evident that borders and boundaries have historically played out differently in the North than they have in the south and that the North is a region uniquely situated to explore themes which are not as applicable in the south. For instance, northern borders have largely existed outside of southern administrative, infrastructural, and technological capacities. While the ideological component of border enforcement, reconfiguration of space, and social control existed (and translated into policy), the reality of administering a region perceived as “remote” made these things more difficult to accomplish. Northern borders acted simultaneously as tools of the colonial state and as sites of resistance. Surveillance of this region was incomplete, allowing for unmonitored and frequent border crossings, a reality that heightened colonial anxieties, and enabled northern residents to challenge colonial anthropocentric ideas of borders and boundaries rooted in southern perceptions of the remoteness of the region.

Geared with these ideas in mind, we ask: how does an orientation to the North transform the ways in which scholars in the environmental humanities might conceptualize the role that borders and boundaries have played, and continue to play, in shaping the history of the North? And, how does a Northern perspective offer new perspectives on border studies? In this series, we bring together an interdisciplinary group of scholars from various career stages who engage the histories and geographies of northern borders and boundary-making processes through diverse methodological approaches. The authors explore the historical roots of current thinking about the North by situating the political, environmental, and cultural capacities of borders and boundaries within local realities. Over the next eight weeks, we will publish papers that offer new insights into settler colonialism and transnational northern discard studies; transboundary animal migration, wildlife management, and political advocacy; Indigenous rights and environmental justice; spiritual borderlands and Christian anthropology; cartographic narration and cultural encounters; transient wildfire smoke and environmental justice in the circumpolar north; cultural boundaries and tourism; and the connections among agricultural experimentation, northern science, and race. 

Individually and collectively, the upcoming papers in this series demonstrate the significance of a northern orientation to studies about borders and boundaries. We hope that this series will generate discussion and demonstrate possible approaches to linking new scholarship on environmental crises in a changing North to both academic and public historical work that continues to assess the colonial and imperial roots of contemporary change.

Feature Image: “Open water lead above Canada, Arctic Ocean” by NASA Goddard Photo and Video. CC BY 2.0.


[1] Scott Stephenson, “Confronting borders in the Arctic,” Journal of Borderland Studies 33,1 (2018): 183-190; Klaus Dodds, “Global Arctic,” Journal of Borderlands Studies 33, 2 (2018): 191-194.
[2] Andrew Stuhl, “The politics of the “New North”: putting history and geography at stake in Arctic futures,” The Polar Journal, 3, 1 (2013): 94-119.
[3]Some of this literature includes Daniel Macfarlane, Fixing Niagara Falls: Environment, Energy and Engineers at the World’s Most Famous Waterfall (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2021); Nancy Langston, Sustaining Lake Superior: An Extraordinary Lake in a Changing World ( New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017); Ted Binnema, “Transborder Approaches to Canadian-American Environmental History” in Douglas Sackman, ed. A Companion to American Environmental History (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2010), 615-634; Sterling Evans, ed. The Borderlands of the American and Canadian Wests: Essays on Regional History of the 49th Parallel (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 17-41.
[4] Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (United States: Aunt Lute Books, 1987); Elizabeth Jameson and Shelia McManus eds, One Step Over the Line: Toward a History of Women in the North American Wests (Edmonton: Athabaska University Press, 2008); Andrew Graybill, Policing the Great Plains: Rangers, Mounties, and the North American Frontier, 1985-1910 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007). Several of the chapters in Settler City Limits examine colonial experiences of boundaries and borderlands between the Canadian and U.S. West. Heather Dorries, Robert Henry, David Hugill, Tyler McCreary, and Julie Tomiak, Eds. Settler City Limits: Indigenous Resurgence and Colonial Violence in the Urban Prairie West (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2019). 
[5]A recent exception is the 2019 collection edited by Dwayne Ryan Menezes and Heather N. Nicol, The North American Arctic: Themes in Regional Security (London: UCL Press, 2019), which deals explicitly with borders in the North American Arctic and suggests this may be a new direction in the historiography of the North.
[6] For example, see Karen Routledge, Do You See Ice? Inuit and Americans at Home and Away (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).
[7] Morris Zaslow, Northward Expansion of Canada 1914-1967 (Toronto : McClelland and Stewart, 1988). 
[8] A few of these works include Arn Keeling and John Sandlos, eds. Mining and Communities in Northern Canada: History, Politics, and Memory (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2015); Hans Carlson, Home is the Hunter: The James Bay Cree and Their Land (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008); and Dorothy Eber, When the Whalers Were up North: Inuit Memories from the Eastern Arctic (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1989).
[9] Shelagh Grant, Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2010); Paul Nadasdy, Sovereignty’s Entailments: First Nation State Formation in the Yukon (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017); Emilie Cameron, Far Off Metal River: Inuit Lands, Settler Stories, and the Making of the Contemporary Arctic (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016); Robert McPherson, Robert, New Owners in Their Own Land: Minerals and Inuit Land Claims (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2003).
[10] Kwanlin Dün First Nation, Kwanlin Dün: Dǎ Kwǎndur Ghày Ghàkwadîndur – Our Story in Our Words (Vancouver: Figure 1 Publishing, 2020); Leslie McCartney and Gwich’in Tribal Council, Our Whole Gwich’in Way of Life Has Changed / Gwich’in K’yuu Gwiidandài’ Tthak Ejuk Gòonlih: Stories from the People of the Land (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2020); Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and Shirley Smith, People of the Lakes: Stories of our Van Tat Gwich’in Elders (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2009); Helene Dobrowolsky, Hammerstones: A History of the Tr’ondëK Hwëch’in (Dawson City, YT: Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, 2003); Nancy Wachowich in collaboration with Apphia Agalakti Awa, Rhoda Kaukjak Katsak, and Sandra Pikujak Katsak, Saqiyuq: Stories from the Lives of Three Inuit Women (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001); Julie Cruikshank, Life Lived Like a Story: Life Stories of Three Yukon Native Elders (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1990).
[11] John Sandlos, Hunters at the Margin: Native People and Wildlife Conservation in the Northwest Territories (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007); Paul Nadasdy, Hunters and Bureaucrats: Power, Knowledge, and Aboriginal-State Relations in the Southwest Yukon (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003).
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Heather Green and Jonathan Luedee are both collaborators on the Northern Borders Project. Heather is an assistant professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, and Jonathan is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History at the University of Toronto.

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