Book Review – Beyond Walls: Reinventing the Canada-United States Borderlands

I just finished a book review for the Journal of Landscape Research. The book is aptly titled ‘Beyond Walls: Reinventing the Canada-United States Borderlands‘ because the entire book is a complete reinvention, devoid of much historical understanding or exploration of how the Canada-U.S. border is so ‘benign.’ Of course, I was nicer in my book review parts of which I can share:

Konrad and Nicol claim that their purpose is “not to attempt a comprehensive history in a book devoted largely to contemporary border issues…[but to] entice readers to search beyond the national narratives…” (64). While the last chapter on transnationalism provides some narratives of people living in the borderlands, it leaves out much of the complications from the new security border. For example, the border fence between Canada and the United States in Derby Line, Vermont is spreading hatred and discontent among residents as they can no longer see long-time neighbors.

Additionally, while recognizing that it is futile to talk about the border without talking about immigration issues (210), the authors shy away from delving into this homeland security imperative, which has completely transformed the cultural landscape. The fact that Canada and the United States do not dub each other as ‘foreign’ is worth further historical examination than the book provides.

Since the evolving borderlands are not cloaked by violence and anguish of power struggle and the changes are aligned in the interests if both countries, Konrad and Nicol conclude that the Canada-United States border offers a model of future borderlands.

For a differing point of view, we have to revisit a journal article by UConn Professor Kornel Chang who claims that that the Canada-United States sovereign space is centered on a geography of exclusion of the Other, starting historically with Asian immigrants, which codified this sphere as a comity of whiteness (American Quarterly):

At the turn of the twentieth century, Canada and the United States elaborated new forms of sovereignty in an attempt to control Asian migration around the Pacific and across landed borders in North America. This joint effort at Asiatic exclusion helped codify immigration and boundary controls as rightful prerogatives of the nation-state, which in turn, reconstructed racial and national borders through its practical enforcement. The process transformed the U.S.-Canadian boundary from an imaginary abstraction to a social reality on the North American Pacific Rim. The mutual opposition to Asian migration wove Canada and the United States together into an Anglo-American alliance in defense of a “white man’s country”—the ideology of settler colonialism that declared the western frontiers the exclusive preserve of Anglo-American civilization.3 In contrast, on the southern boundary, where illegal Asian border-crossings also raised concern, the United States, because of conflicting national interests and historically strained relations with Mexico, unilaterally enforced the border.4 The comity of whiteness, on the other hand, encouraged bilateral cooperation and coordination between Canada and the United States in the north. Indeed, bound by their commitment to white supremacy, Anglo-American governments of North America worked in collaboration to construct and maintain the U.S.-Canadian border as a bulwark against Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian migrants. This jointly invented border, then, was the spatial expression of transnational white solidarity in the Pacific Northwest.

It is no wonder then that both countries stand in transnational white solidarity, encouraging bilateral cooperation and coordination. This lack of historical analysis stuck out like a sore thumb while I was reviewing the book.

This is one great advantage of being an interdisciplinary scholar. When I am reading books by geographers, I can easily discern that they don’t have a handle on historical time, especially an understanding of history as a capital ‘H’ dominant narrative that marginalizes other important narratives. Likewise, most history books also don’t have a good grasp on geographical space. Disciplinary blinders can really cost us a lot in terms of perspectives and gaining a handle on more holistical explanations. There’s multiple narratives, messaging and truths–maybe that’s the only Truth.

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