The Canadian-U.S. Border: Asymmetrical, long and peaceful

Henry Srebrnik
Published on July 13, 2014

Do we now live in a postmodern “borderless” world? Not really.

Most borders have not crumbled like the Berlin Wall. Instead, many boundaries have emerged as a so-called “third space” in between countries, occupied by heterogeneous and hybrid cultures, and inhabited by “halfway populations.” The border between Mexico and the United States is one example.

What about the very long border between Canada and the U.S.? The entire boundary, including small portions of maritime boundaries on the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic coasts, as well as the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, is 8,891 kilometres long, including 2,475 kilometres shared with Alaska.

It is our only land border, and Canada is by far the largest nation having a land border with only one country. Unlike most boundaries, it has been one of amity and peace for more than a century.

One of the foremost students of the border is Roger Gibbins, long-time professor of political science at the University of Calgary and now a Senior Fellow at the Canada West Foundation.

In his 1989 monograph, “Canada as a Borderlands Society,” he examined the differences between the way Americans and Canadians see themselves vis-à-vis the boundary. Gibbins concluded that while the international border had “very limited penetration into American society,” for Canadians “the border looms very large indeed, and its effects are felt not only in communities proximate to the border but also throughout the country.”

He highlighted the asymmetry of the border relationship, which sees most Canadians living relatively close to the border and thus affected by it, whereas most Americans live far away from the border and do not concern themselves with it.

From Maine in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west, the land border on the American side is sparsely populated. States like Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana have very few people in their northern areas adjacent to the border.

The only places where Americans live close to Canada in this region are some cities along the water boundary between Ontario and the states of New York and Michigan in the Great Lakes region, where major bridges and tunnels connect Fort Erie and Buffalo, Windsor and Detroit, and Sarnia and Port Huron.

It’s a different story on the British Columbia-Washington State line along the 49th parallel. Vancouver is virtually on the border, and on the American side cities like Bellingham and even Seattle aren’t that far away.

However, as Gibbins found out in a study of two neighbouring towns only 10 kilometres apart on either side of that border, the Canadians were far more aware of American culture and politics than the reverse.

Sometimes ethnic groups and communities span the border, especially Aboriginal peoples who predated the formation of the two countries. Native peoples such as the Mohawks do not consider the border as applying to them. The Mohawk First Nation of Akwesasne straddles the intersection of the American-Canadian international border as well as the Ontario-Quebec provincial border, on both banks of the St. Lawrence River.

Most of the land is in New York state, where it is known as the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation. Although divided by borders, the residents consider themselves to be one community. The Mohawks view their territory as a “sovereign nation.”

After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, the boundary between Canada and the United States became more apparent. The line itself did not change, but crossing the border became more protracted, less civil and generally more complex.

This “thickening” of the border resulted in delays at many checkpoints, as crossings were placed on alert, and measures were taken to enhance security. I was on an airplane flying between Winnipeg and Montreal that set down in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., on Sept. 11, 2001, where I spent the next three days.

The international bridge linking it to its neighbour on Michigan’s upper peninsula, also named Sault Ste. Marie, was shut and I couldn’t cross into Michigan.

Even so, the Canada-U.S. border remains one of the least militarized in the world.


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.