AN EXAMINATION OF THE EDGE of an object reveals its shape, and the CLUI is often drawn to the periphery in order to understand spaces and places as a whole. Much attention is given to the USA/Mexico border. But what about the longer, and more complicated line separating us from our largest trading partner, Canada?
Over the course of 2014, the CLUI developed an exhibition about the USA/Canada border, from coast to coast. Titled United Divide: A Linear Portrait of the USA/Canada Border, the exhibit presents the nation’s northern boundary as a kind of continental cross-section, and describes the relationship between these two countries by considering the incidental and intentional cultural objects that the boundary line creates.
The USA/Canada border is an international interpretive corridor, passing through rivers, lakes, islands, bridges, airports, parks, towns, farms, pipelines, backyards, and the occasional living room.
Discussed in the CLUI exhibit are structures that are bisected by the line, and the interesting inter-border spaces they create. Also examined are the exclaves and other anomalies of the line, including Indian reservations on the border that make complicated, three-nation zones. The exhibit doggedly follows the line across the continent, from Maine to Washington state, the longest shared international boundary in the world (we left out the Alaska portion, as it is wilderness, mostly, pretty much).
The USA and Canada are the biggest trading partners in the world, with around $300 billion in commerce going over the border each way every year—nearly half of it over a single bridge, the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit/Windsor. 100 million people and 50 million vehicles cross the border every year through 115 ports of entry on the continental border.
On the Canadian side the facilities are manned by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), with surveillance and field enforcement by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). On the USA side, the Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP), part of the Department of Homeland Security, operates the ports of entry, and its Border Patrol division conducts surveillance and enforcement beyond the port. CBP has more than 60,000 employees, making it one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the world. While the majority work on the USA/Mexico border, at least 5,000 CBP officers, including 2,100 Border Patrol agents, work the USA/Canada border.
While law enforcement agencies prominently and aggressively manage movement north and south over the line, the boundary itself is an east/west structure, running perpendicular to the flow across it. When it is not following a waterway, like the St. Lawrence River or the Great Lakes, it is a 20 foot-wide, monument-studded corridor, marked, cleared, and maintained by the International Boundary Commission (IBC). The IBC, composed equally of Canadian and American representatives, exists to make sure the boundary is fixed, visible, and uncontested. Their job has little to do with enforcing the immigration and customs laws of either country, but rather with bringing attention to the line itself, and to making sure people know where it is, exactly.
Early surveys marking the boundary, of course, were inaccurate, without the benefit of more advanced technologies, but it was agreed that the boundary would be accepted as surveyed. The result is that even the apparently big straight lines on the boundary, like the 49th Parallel, are not completely straight at all. The border zigs and zags.
The border is made up of more than 11,000 straight lines, ranging from a few feet to many miles in length. 5,700 of these lines are over water, including many meandering streams, and are recorded as turning points, marked by reference monuments on shore. Over land there are more than 5,300 fixed points, between which are the straight lines that make up the terrestrial border. Most of these points are marked with a monument, which range from a small brass medallion to a tall stone obelisk.
With a staff of less than 30 people and an annual budget between $3 million to $30 million, the IBC maintains more than 8,000 monuments along the boundary. It also preserves the cut line, clearing away all bushes and trees for ten feet on either side of the boundary. This, more than any other feature, makes the boundary visible, and creates a swath, 20 feet wide, through more than 1,300 miles of forested land.
Since the 1960s, the IBC has been authorized to regulate all construction that occurs within the 20-foot boundary zone. In the interest of maintaining a clear unobstructed view of the boundary, this generally means saying no to all new construction except for roads and pipelines, and even, in most cases, denying permission to substantially repair existing buildings.
If an old barn that happens to be on the line needs to be rebuilt, the IBC will encourage the owner to tear it down, or rebuild it away from the line. This, along with the complications of dealing with two sets of building codes, two sets of contractors, and two insurance companies, means that most buildings straddling the line are now abandoned and falling down. There once were hundreds of buildings on the line (many of which were used to serve liquor during Prohibition). Now there are less than 40.
On one side the boundary is the cold, northern edge of the USA, where the population peters out and the landscape becomes frontier-like. But then, on the other side, it starts all over, as the warm, southern edge of Canada, with some of the best farmland in that country.
The CLUI mandate is to examine American culture by looking at the ground, and though the exhibit covers international space, it is about the USA’s northern boundary, not Canada’s southern one. Perhaps it will be combined someday with a similar project, told from the Canadian point of view, creating a North American portrait united by the dividing line. ♦