BIG Theme – History

In the realm of contemporary border studies, there is tendency at times to overlook or minimize the changeable, dynamic context of the existence of borders, and just accepting borders as a given. So in researching the history of borders in globalization, it is necessary to shake this idea up, to give its centrism a bit of a poke – which we hope to do.

In one of our focuses, looking at the evolution of the Canadian-American borderlands, we hope to emphasize how organic these places are, how they evolve over time to become different kinds of spaces, how borderlands and their histories are far from homogenous.

Canadian and American border patrol shake hands at the International Boundary line, 1938.
Photo Credit: Minnesota Historical Society (Flickr)

Following an approach that lead researcher Randy Widdis terms spatial grammar,  investigators will explore the evolution of five Canada-U.S. borderland regions – the Atlantic, the St. Lawrence, the Great Lakes, the Prairies/Plains, and the Pacific Northwest – from the end of the American Revolution to the signing of the US-Canada Free Trade Agreement in 1989.

A second major theme will involve interrogating notions of sovereignty over time, and their relation to debates that occurred in these regions in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries over empire, immigration, and federalism. In particular, research will look at how this idea of sovereignty played a central role in historical debates about immigration in the North American west and explore how American, Canadian, British, Japanese, Chinese, and south Asian commentators in these often sharp debates understood sovereignty differently.

It will be especially important to interrogate how these patterns of thought had very real impacts on mobility and border-making, just as mobility and border-making, quite naturally, had very real impacts on these patterns of thought.

We need to know how fluid these concepts of sovereignty in the Pacific North were and how they interacted with each other. Were there overlapping conceptions of sovereignty amongst these different groups? How was it redefined, challenged and consolidated over the years? How did competing forces and visions of empire, state-building, border-making and indeed global capitalism complicate this question of sovereignty in this part of the world?

A third subtheme will focus on Aboriginal Borderlands, specifically addressing the following questions: How have Indigenous conceptions of space and territoriality evolved in relation to economic considerations, whether the use-rights of a seasonal economy, wage work, or reservation resources? How have conceptions of space and territoriality evolved in relation to diplomacy and warfare among Indigenous nations and between these nations and representatives of (neo) European empires (fur traders, missionaries, colonial officials, military personnel)? How have Indigenous conceptions of space and territoriality evolved in relation to neo-European nation-building, including the imposition of the international border, and the larger colonial process of political subjugation, territorial dispossession, and management of the dispossessed and subjugated population, rendering it dependent on the state?  How have Indigenous conceptions of space and territoriality evolved in relation to more recent reassertions of Indigenous national sovereignty in relation to the U.S.-Canada border?  

Randy Widdis at the University of Regina will lead the History theme. His colleagues are: David Atkinson (Purdue), Susan Gray (Arizona State), and Yukari Takai (York University).