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July/August 2010 issue

The Canada-U.S. Border

In the past, the end of one First Nations territory and the start of another’s might be marked by a natural feature such as a huge boulder or a cliff.
Video Read more about the history of treaties and disputes that shape the experience of First Nations on the border.
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Multimedia Discover more videos, interactive features and photo essays about the Canada-U.S. border.
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  • Defining the Canada-U.S. Border

    On the frontier between Canada and the United States, weed whackers and wile keep the boundary clear and quiet.
    Read more »
  • Smuggler’s Inn

    At Smuggler’s Inn, guests are encouraged to watch cross-border smuggling from the comfort of their rooms.
    Read more »
  • First Nations’ Border Struggles

    In a land with no lines, how do you define the end of one territory and the beginning of another? Read more »
  • Lynx: The Cross-border Cat

    Lynx don’t care about the line between Ontario and Minnesota, and researchers on both sides are starting to pay attention. Read more »
  • Stanstead on the Borderline

    Boosting security in the border town of Stanstead, Quebec, divides a peaceful community. Read more »
  • Ontario’s Elvis Festival

    The King comes to Collingwood in a cross-border cultural exchange. Read more »
  • Multimedia

    Discover more videos, interactive features and photo essays about the Canada-U.S. border.
    View now »

First Nations Face Border Struggles

In a land with no lines, how do you define the end of one territory and the beginning of another?

By Richard Wagamese

My Ojibwa family name is Wagamese. By itself, it means nothing. That is because when the registrars came to sign up the Ojibwa for treaty, they wrote down only the parts of the names they could pronounce. Or they gave us English translations, such as Redsky and Otter Tail, or English surnames, such as Green, Kelly and Smith. Wagamese is part of a longer phrase that translates to “man walking by the crooked water.”

“There is no word for boundary in the Ojibwa language. There is no word for map either. There was only ever the land.”

The name refers to my great-grandfather. He is remembered in the northwestern part of Ontario north of Minaki for walking the 72-kilometre length of our traditional trapline along the Winnipeg River in both directions in three days. That river is the crooked water referred to in our name because of the way it snakes from Lake Winnipeg southeasterly to Lake of the Woods, close to the Canada–U.S. boundary. It is the great landmark that allowed my family to declare the boundaries of our trapline.

The shoreline is marked by bogs, marshes, coves, steep cliffs and huge expanses of spruce, pine and tamarack. There were no straight lines in Ojibwa culture, so there were no grids or maps or delineations to assume or claim territory. Instead, my people used the land itself.

The Jay Treaty of 1794

In the beginning was the Jay Treaty of 1794

It may be over 200 years old, but the Jay Treaty remains the authoritative agreement between Canada and the United States governing the movement of First Nations people across the international boundary.

On paper… The treaty, negotiated between Great Britain and the United States without consulting First Nations, recognizes the natural and historic right of aboriginals to cross the border at will.

…and on the border: The treaty’s observance has always been interpreted and implemented differently in Canada than in the United States. Though it seemed to recognize a fundamental right of mobility for First Nations, the promise of the treaty is ever vulnerable to political motives and circumstances in Ottawa and Washington.

The Akwesasne Mohawk First Nation

A house divided: the Akwesasne Mohawk First Nation.

On paper… Partitioned not only by an international boundary between Canada and the U.S. but a provincial boundary separating Ontario from Quebec, many have called the area “a jurisdictional nightmare.” The strategic exploitation of Akwesasne for smuggling and legal battles over the rights of the Akwesasne people to traverse the international boundary unimpeded present complex challenges for aboriginal, provincial and federal governments alike.

…and on the border: A dispute over the arming of Canadian border guards on reserve land last summer led to the temporary shutdown of the border crossing, becoming a potential milestone in the community’s struggle for greater sovereignty, especially in matters of law enforcement.

First Nations in the Yukon Territory

The Kluane and White River First Nations in the Yukon Territory.

On paper… Commercial and infrastructure projects are required to include genuine consultation with First Nations communities that will be affected.

…and on the border: Since the construction of the Alaska Highway in the mid-20th century up to the current Alaska Highway Pipeline Project and other transnational industrial explorations, this neighbourly arrangement has been characterized by increased and ever more disruptive contact with outlying communities, governments, lifestyles and cultures.

First Nations and the Border Post-911

First Nations, New World Order, and the Border Post-911…

On paper… An agreement has been reached between Canada and the United States to allow carriers of the Indian Status Card to freely pass the border by land or sea. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, however, has also advised the Canadian federal government that this “flexibility” is at the discretion of U.S. officials.

On the border… From New Brunswick, amidst reports of alleged racial profiling against Elsipogtog Micmacs at the New Brunswick-Maine border, to the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, concerns over the potential for border security to trump age-old treaty rights are ever alive.

Sometimes, the end of one family’s or band’s traditional territory and the start of another’s was marked by a huge boulder or a cliff. Other times, a bend in the river itself referenced a boundary, even though there is no word for boundary in the Ojibwa language. There is no word for map either. There was only ever the land.

For the Ojibwa and other native groups across North America, land could not be divided. It was whole, as defined by the Creator. It was sacred, because the idea of wholeness contained principles such as sharing, harmony and equality. When territory was decided upon, it was an honourable agreement based on those principles, and the agreement became sacred, too, because it involved the land.

The trapline my great-grandfather walked followed the twists of the river. There were beaver dams, muskrat lodges and plenty of foxes, wolves, mink and game, such as moose, deer, geese, ducks and rabbits. It was rich and bountiful in everything our family needed. That was the other thing that defined territory; no band or family ever arranged for more than what it needed.

When I see the number of land claims negotiated these days and the reams of maps backing up those claims, I wonder how it all came to pass. The idea of the land as sacred remains a native principle. But nowadays, we have learned to see it in straight lines and value it in terms of the resources and money it could yield rather than the spiritual principles it gave our cultures.

There is a man walking by the crooked water. He stops to enjoy the feel of the land all around him. There are no boundaries between him and the world. There is only a critical joining: balance, harmony, belonging. No one ever needed a map for that.

Richard Wagamese is an Ojibwa writer and storyteller from the Wabaseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario. He is the author of One Native Life.


Related content and resources:
Photo Club
View Henrietta Haniskova’s fashion photos from Collingwood’s Elvis Festival and read a one-on-one interview with the photographer.
Drawing the Border
Read about how it took almost a century of negotiation and compromise to establish the world’s longest undefended border.
Border Technology
Discover high-tech security on the border as a globetrotting adventurer takes a hike with his family through Waterton Lakes National Park into the U.S.
Evolution of the Canada-U.S. Border
See how the border between Canada and the U.S. has evolved over the past three centuries.

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Comments on this articleView all comments (15) | Leave a comment

Sad it has come to this. We have the same over reaction by the US Enforcement officials. As a place cut off from the rest of the US, with BC as our main source of everything, we also suffer from these heavy handed tactics

Submitted by Sad it has on Saturday, July 26, 2014

I am a graduate of Stanstead College, I experienced the easy going nature of the border guards first hand in the 1970s, as I used to travel on foot across the border regularly to return to the U.S. for visits. I was present during the period in which security concerns were just beginning to surface; most surprising about this was it was initiated by Canada due to the Montreal Olympics. The "bar" was set in place to protect athletes from the travesty of the Munich Olympic debacle. Valid or not, safety concerns have been at the forefront for 40 years.

Submitted by Louis Brien on Monday, April 21, 2014

I was born in Rock Island 1941 and grew up in Graniteville. I went to school in Beebe Quebec. I have tried all possible routes to find out the year that the old school was torn down and replaced with the Beebe Intermediate School. It is next to impossible to find any info on the Three Villages as I knew them from 1940 - 1960. If you could help me with the dates I would appreciate it. Thank you.

Submitted by Betty ( Ellis ) Jacklin on Saturday, February 15, 2014

Could someone please point me in the direction of the 1955 Canadian National Geographic film? I'd like to view this for myself. Thankss!

Submitted by CKM on Friday, December 27, 2013

I'm Canadian and I was standing on the Canadian side filming houses and stuff on the US side when a US border patrol walkd over and asked : What are you doing filming US establishments. Told him it was nothing - I didn't mean anything by it - I was a tourist, to which he responded : and why were you filming at the other border crossing? Free trade, did you say? Wasn't that bad od an experience though - but I never returned...

Submitted by Mr FaV on Tuesday, September 10, 2013

I'm one of those bordertown dual citizens. Grew up in Stanstead, had Vermont friends, went to the Drive In in Derby Line. Grandmother, Mother, and all of us have moved back and forth across that line all of our lives. Locals know to report. Gates do not bother us, American and Canadian border guards know us and treat us well. It's never been a impediment to the two communities, which really are one community without the constrictions. Most of which exist in outsider's perceptions.

Submitted by Annie on Wednesday, August 21, 2013

After decades of normality the department of homeland security has 'Berlin Walled" this community fortunately the number of terrorists caught in this town has made it all worthwhile.

Submitted by bryan on Sunday, June 30, 2013

What about simply moving the border outside the city on both sides like the international peace park in North Dakota/Manitoba? Either side can drive into the area, but you clear customs when leaving from either side.

I'd love to see a completely open border (like the EU has inside the Schengen) but Canada's asylum rules might be a sticking point as would the US attitude towards guns.

Submitted by Stuart Friedman on Saturday, July 7, 2012

The United States has bigger problems to worry about than a small peaceful town. The United States can't keep the Mexican border safe so why worry about this peaceful area? Like I said already the United States has bigger problems they should be worrying about!

Submitted by Clinton on Friday, May 18, 2012

I use to live on Canusa Street when I was about 9 years old. Our neighbours with their American Flags on the front of their homes always had different school holidays than we did. I noticed that when I was a kid. We always crossed the Street to go play with them. And, the Customs Officers on both sides of Canusa were always friendly... back then.

Submitted by Bonnie Stevens on Friday, November 11, 2011

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