I grew up on the longest undefended border in the world, in the most beautiful place on Earth: the Thousand Islands. The Algonquin expression for the region, translated into a single word, means Paradise. I have lived near the border all my life, and crossed it more times than I can count. I have also lived for periods of time in the United States: once in the 1960s, while my Father studied at Cornell, and for the past four years. This series of columns will, I hope, record impressions of the United States by an outsider who knows and loves the land and people, and impressions of Canada by a Canadian who none the less has a basis for comparison in years spent in the United States.  

The Medicine Line: Canada and the United States

by John G. Spragge spragge@umich.edu

Natives called the border between Canada and the United States the Medicine Line, because during the 19th century Indian wars American troops respected it as if by magic. A century later, the medicine line deserves our respect for many different reasons: the history of peaceful coexistence it represents, and the model it offers for the future.

Canada and the United States separated violently. In the revolutionary war, forces of the Continental Congress attempted to seize both Quebec and Montreal. Many of the first settlers of Ontario came from Loyalist frontier regiments mustered out after the war and granted lands along the upper St. Lawrence River by the British government in exchange for their services. The legacy of the war had not wholly healed when British naval arrogance and American territorial ambition triggered the war of 1812. After that war, the British and Americans negotiated one of the earliest, and certainly one of the most successful disarmament treaties: the Rush-Bagot agreement, which eliminated most warships on the Great Lakes. About a kilometre from where I spent my youth, the British fleet from the war of 1812, burned and sunk as required by the treaty, still rests in the mud of the bottom.

Canadians and Americans have not faced one another in anger for almost two hundred years; but the relationship has plenty of challenges for both countries. For Americans, the challenge comes from a country intensely similar to the United States in almost every way, but which has from the beginning rejected a part of the proposition, which, as American commentators remind us, underlies the United States. Where the United States offers life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Canada proposes peace, order, and good government. Americans offer a melting pot; Canadians retort, in Larry Zolf's phrase, "boil me no melting pots, dream me no dreams." Americans fought a revolution and a civil war; Canadians arranged our independence with an act of (Britain's) parliament, and held referenda on separation in Quebec. How does a nation built on a proposition react when its nearest neighbors and closest friends politely decline to share in the proposition?

Canada has a very different problem with the border, one stated at its simplest in Al Purdy's anthology from the 1960s called The New Romans: Candid Canadian Opinions of the US. One of the authors writes succinctly: "nobody likes someone else's power". Some Canadians and a few Europeans worry that the US. "dominates" Canada culturally. I presume they mean by this that Canadians, like Americans, listen to music by Alanis Morrissette, the Bare Naked Ladies, Sarah McLachlan, Loreena McKennit and Neil Young, or that Canadians, like Americans, watch movies by James Cameron and Ivan Reitman, or that we, like Americans, enjoy the comic talents of Rick Moranis, Howie Mandel, Dan Ackroyd and Jim Carey. We don't stand in any real danger of disappearing as a nation, either politically, economically, or culturally. But we worry, because we live beside the most powerful nation in the world, and we tend, if we don't watch ourselves, to judge things by the standards of the United States.

Which misses the point. Canada provides an alternate point of view to that of the United States. Because of that, we don't negate the American proposition; we bring it to life. The final freedom in the American proposition has always consisted of the right to decline it; to find another nation with a similar but different idea of liberty and government. For generations, Americans have extended the boundaries of their freedom with the ability to look to the North Star and choose something different. For the Loyalist crossing the St. Lawrence or the Niagara River, or for the passengers on the Underground Railroad, or the young Americans driving a beat-up VW over the Peace bridge in the 1960s, Canada has always represented the same choice.

For the Americans who stayed in the United States, as much as for Canadians in Canada, the other country represents an alternative and a challenge: to live out the best in our nation's ideal of freedom, in the knowledge that we, and everyone around us, has another choice.

Just across the medicine line.

John Spragge, a Canadian computer programmer and pilot, currently sojourns in Ann Arbor Michigan.