One of the striking features of the US Canada border, apart from it being the longest non militarized border in the world, is the zone of no touching — a zone of ten feet on either side of the border where no vegetation can survive and every three years a maintenance team goes out to the boundary markers and clears any new growth. On GoogleMaps, the line is discernable, nay unmistakable. This political border has long been seen as a benign border, one that aids movement. Yet, like all political borders, the imposition of the line itself was an act of cartographic violence, over hundreds of years. According to Randy Widdis, the U.S.- Canada border has a completely different meaning for aboriginal and métis people:
In their territorialization, Europeans fashioned territories of what they perceived as empty spaces, ignoring aboriginal peoples, and in their settlement, colonists destroyed the more fluid territories of indigenous peoples, dispossessing them of their lands. As a result, indigenous people view the line as a European geopolitical creation imposed on their former territories, a symbol of colonial subjugation. And yet they too have both used and disregarded the boundary as a means of economic gain (e.g. smuggling). It is a symbol not just of exploitation and dispossession, but of interaction and negotiation as well. The “Medicine Line,” the term given by the Blackfoot to the border, and subsequently adopted by other groups, was a paradox; for some it meant escaping punishment by crossing the border into what was a safety net of neighboring tribes of “the Queen’s” or “Grandmother’s Land,” while for others, it simply became an artificially imposed line that cut across traditional territories and banished people from their homeland and relatives (Widdis 2015, 177-8).
As Konrad and Nicol remark:
The evolution of the political border between the US and Canada took place over centuries —involving a variety of nations from Britain and France, then a fledging Unites States, Spain and Russia and finally an independent Canada—through constant negotiation and renegotiation. It is the story of an arbitrary line dividing the North American continent that came to be understood and accepted as the division between people, nations and economies. The line itself grew in stops and starts as colonial powers and independent nations explored territory and negotiated it. It is a fascinating story of exploration, First Nations’ “medicine lines”, international tribunals, engineering accomplishments, political and military battles and unheralded cooperation (Konrad and Nicol 2008, 57).
In the first 100 odd years of its constitution, the border was defined in treaty but remained largely invisible on land or water. The physical stamping of the border was a messy one; overgrown and obliterated for the most part, the International Boundary Commission (established by treaty in 1908) was charged with re-establishing the border. Indeed, from ‘the very beginning, the boundary between the newly created United States of America and Great Britain’s colonies did less to divide the continent into clearly demarcated portions than it did to establish a zone of interaction or frontier between a varied collection of colonies on one side and an assemblage of states on the other’ (Konrad and Nicol 2008, 70). The founding of Detroit as a fur trading post was not without its problems.
Between 1701 when Detroit was founded and 1837 when Michigan became the 26th state in the union, the city of Detroit changed hands five times going from the French to the British to the Americans, back to the British and finally going back to the Americans. In the case of the Detroit River, the boundary was in fact both an “imposition” as well as a catalyst in the “interdependence of community, commerce and the state” (McDougall and Valentine 2004, 13) from 1786 to 1807. In a sense, as the political border was negotiated along the river, it remained a zone of interaction. During the war of 1812, the region around the Detroit River saw a lot of fighting; the river itself served as barrier between British Upper Canada and American Michigan territory. Until the war of 1812, the border was largely permeable; crossing the border simply meant ‘crossing over’ (Brunsman , Stone and Fisher 2012). After the war, despite its absence in physical form, the borderline “came to mean something” (Leacock); it defined territory and a sense of place for Anglo-Ca¬nadians in particular.
National borders, unlike rivers, aren’t envisioned as shifting lines. A political border is often part fantasy, part self-fulfilling prophecy. The act of defining a border is rooted in the act of representation. Borders “are essential to cognitive processes, because they allow both the establishment of taxonomies and conceptual hierarchies that structure the movement of thought.” (Mezzadra & Neilson, 2013, p. 16). The border “in time, can become a formless dynamic and complex condition. The indeterminately changing-in-time landscape becomes a useful conceptual tool to think about borders instead of the conventional model of order” (Monacella & Ware, 2007, p. 21). Borders are made; they are realized though border markers/ fences/ barriers or in the case of certain unmanned borders, they are actualized through maintenance of landscape and border markers. Bélanger understands landscape (and the processes and systems that inhabit it) as an operative infrastructural ground (Bélanger, 2010, p. 345). Borders are enmeshed in landscape and can (perhaps should) be thought of as landscape itself. The use of rivers as borders further justifies this idea of borders as landscape.
The Detroit River as a border
An Act of Congress declared the Detroit River a ‘public thoroughfare for the passage of vessels’ (Burton, Stocking and Miller 1922, 32) on 19 October 1819. In opening up the river for private vessels, the river became an important trade conduit. As commerce and the city of Detroit grew, the river was dredged to maintain a navigable channel. The US Army Corps of Engineers played a seminal role in the drafting of the River and Harbor Act of 1890, which authorized funds to improve the Great Lakes navigational system. Under the provisions of the act, the Corps was to conduct a survey to mark out a 20-foot ship channel in the waters connecting the Lakes Erie, Huron, and Superior (Becker 1987, 7). The political border ran through the shipping channel, equidistant from both ends of the channel, not necessarily both banks. In the case of the Detroit River, the insertion of the US Canada border along the river was contemporaneous to the trading of islands amongst private individuals. Island ownership was often a contentious issue between the two countries. For instance, until 1822 the United States questioned British sovereignty over one of the islands in the lower Detroit River. The reason: ownership of the island determined access as well sovereignty over the shipping channel. According to Rockne Smith:
The fixing of the actual boundary between Canada and the United States through the Detroit River was a matter of extended negotiations. Due to ambiguity and various possible interpretations, it was not settled until a compromise in 1822. This settlement placed Sugar and Stony Islands in the United States. It defined the channel of the river as being between Bois Blanc and the Canadian shore, and designating the centerline of that channel as the boundary, excepting that the island of Bois Blanc should be British Territory (Smith 1997, 62).
At the time, the United States controlled 80% of the shipping traffic by volume but the shipping channel itself was predominantly in Canadian waters. In making the Detroit River an effective and well-maintained shipping corridor, the border too became a well-maintained and used corridor. The complex history of (is)land ownership along the river and the indelible make left by dredging point to how the political border was used to spatialize the shipping channel.
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