Borderline Conclusions: Studying Borderlands in the Canadian North

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


Why study borderlands in the Canadian North? The Northern Borders and Boundaries series has sought to answer this question and demonstrate the value of a borderlands lens for the North. The North has received scant attention – as Heather Green and Jonathan Luedee showed in their introductory essay to this series – in a field of flourishing of scholarship related to the 49th parallel and the Mexico-US borderlands. Yet, as the blog posts in this series demonstrate, an emerging focus on northern borderlands and boundaries in historical interdisciplinary scholarship highlights what the study of these borderlands has to offer.

The essays in this series covered a vast geographical area across the Canadian North (and beyond), conceiving of boundaries and borders in multifaceted ways: geographical, governmental, local, and conceptual.  The crossing of these types of borders and boundaries are often interrelated and show how borders delineate the landscape of the North and the minds of northerners and southerners alike.

Nancy Langston’s essay, “Woodland Caribou and Borders” shows the connection between the Canadian North and Minnesota in the latter’s efforts to reintroduce woodland caribou. In addition to drawing attention to the migration of caribou between Lake Superior and James Bay, she describes the failed efforts to translocate caribou from northern Saskatchewan. In “The Boundaries of Arctic Map-Making,” Isabelle Gapp examines the interrelationship between, and boundary crossing within, colonial cartography and art. Meanwhile, Chistopher Petrakos, in “William Carpenter Bompas and the Spiritual Borderlands of the Far Canadian North” discusses both the geographical and spiritual border crossing of the Anglican missionary William Carpenter Bompas while carrying out his mission work in the North. In “What Human Rights Look Like,” Finis Dunaway details Gwich’in efforts to protect the transboundary Porcupine Caribou Herd from oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Dunaway demonstrates a photographer’s efforts to capture the Gwich’in connection to the caribou herd and convey this connection to a southern audience. Rohini Patel’s “Grounding Colonial Science in Treaty 9 Land” highlights Canada’s failed efforts to establish an agricultural community in Treaty 9 territory in northern Ontario. In “The Sourtoe Cocktail, Tourism, and Cultural Boundaries in the North,” Matt Papai examines the concept of being a “sourdough” and the shifting lines between being a local and a tourist in the Klondike. Finally, in “Smoke Seasons,” Mica Jorgenson examines transboundary smoke. In addition to smoke’s crossing of geographic boundaries, Jorgenson also demonstrates how smoke transcended dichotomies between nature and culture by entering human bodies as a bodily reminder of climate change.

Interconnectedness between northern and southern regions is a key theme of this series. Langston connects the Lake Superior region to James Bay through the migration of caribou, linking north and south. A transnational boundary element that Langston examined was the similar peatbog caribou habitats between northern Saskatchewan and Minnesota, which made the Saskatchewan herd appear as ideal candidates for translocation. The failed translocation of caribou from these habitats in the 1930s shows the limitation of perceived similarities in northern and southern landscapes. Meanwhile, Patel demonstrates how efforts to settle northern Ontario reified boundaries between north and south.

The interconnectivity of the north and south can also be seen in how ideas and perspectives flowed between northern and southern regions. These included southern constructions of what it means to be northern, as well as northern efforts to convey to southern audiences how southerners’ actions in the North affected their local communities and landscapes. Papai demonstrates how southern perceptions of northern exoticness fed into the Dawson City tourist magnet known as the “Sourtoe Cocktail” (a ritual in which I, a born-and-raised Yukoner, have never participated in) and how this cocktail blurred the boundaries between local (or sourdough) and tourist. Meanwhile, Dunaway shows Gwich’in efforts to convey to southern audiences the importance of the Porcupine Caribou Herd to Gwich’in culture.

Contributors also highlighted transboundary dynamics along the Yukon-Alaska border. Petrakos reveals the fluid borderland that welcomed Bompas in 1865, both geographically and spiritually. Between his arrival in the Yukon and his death in 1906, he saw the transfer of the Hudson’s Bay Company post Fort Yukon to the Americans and the solidifying of the Yukon-Alaska border. During his time in the North, he witnessed the consequences of settler colonialism and the consequent reification of the border. Dunaway also demonstrates the continued porous nature of the border by examining the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge through the transboundary perspective of the Porcupine caribou. Through this transboundary caribou herd, their connection to the Gwich’in, and the necessity of conveying this connection to a southern audience, Dunaway shows how photographer Lenny Kohm learned “transnationalism on the ground.”

Broader transboundary approaches showcase the importance of widening our scholarly view of the North. For example, Gapp shows how colonial map making was linked to transnational colonialism, and Jorgenson demonstrates the global reach of forest fire smoke, connecting people from all over the world to distant fires.

While widening our approach to the study of the North is important, so too is an increased focus on intranational and localized borders or boundaries, which are often lost in a focus on international and provincial/territorial boundaries. Within the context of government efforts to colonize northern Ontario, Patel reveals how new borders were developed in the form of reserves. These reserves circumscribed Indigenous land use and secured resources for the purposes of settler colonialism. Langston, meanwhile, describes the fencing in of caribou, “hardening once-porous borders.”

In addition to geographical borders, this series highlights various conceptual border crossings. For example, Gapp demonstrates the fluid boundary between map making and picture making while Petrakos examines how spiritual borderlands challenged Bompas’ ideas of racial and cultural boundaries. Connected with this concept of the spiritual borderland is the suggestions that the North was a “borderland where the extremes collided.” The idea of the North as a land of extremes is similarly seen in Papai’s contribution on the “Sourtoe Cocktail.” Papai shows how tourists viewed the Yukon as exotic, with “strange things done under the midnight sun.”

Perhaps one of the key conceptual borderlands that has emerged from this series is that of culture and nature. Both Langston and Dunaway highlight the reciprocal relationship between Indigenous peoples and the caribou herds that they depended upon for their livelihoods. Moreover, Dunaway demonstrates how Kohm’s photographic work transcended the dichotomy between wilderness and civilization. Jorgenson challenges this dichotomy further by demonstrating how forest fire smoke enters our bodies. In this unique and innovative approach, she shows how smoke entering our bodies reminds us of the current climate crisis.

Collectively, the contributions to this series reveal the diverse geographical scales over which human and non-human actors engaged with northern borders and borderlands.  As scholars of the North, we need to continue to investigate the impacts of borders and borderlands and develop fruitful approaches to understanding geographical and conceptual demarcations.  I can only hope that this is the first of many editions of Northern Borders work.

Feature Image: View from the Haines Road. Photo by author.
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Glenn Iceton

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