Derek Lundy is the author of Borderlands: Riding the Edge of America.
Any Canadian who’s surprised the Canada-U.S. border will stay closed for another month, raise your hand. Looking around … north … cross-country. Okay, not a hand in sight. Or, perhaps a few, which can only belong to frustrated snowbirds or to divided families or to struggling business owners. The two governments have agreed to extend until Nov. 21 the existing month-by-month agreement to allow only essential travel across the border – with a few discretionary exceptions. And it seems that the great majority of Canadians concur.
“Our decisions will continue to be based on the best public health advice available to keep Canadians safe,” boringly sane Public Safety Minister Bill Blair wrote on Twitter. Sanity-challenged – if never boring – U.S. President Donald Trump said recently: “Canada would like it open, and, you know, we want to get back to normal business. … [So] we’re going to be opening the borders pretty soon.”
Not a chance. Unless the Canadian government wants to deal with a mass uprising of its own citizens.
So the famous “longest undefended border in the world” will remain defended. And, in all likelihood, not for just another month but for the foreseeable future. We have already adapted to this strange and novel situation and, in the face of the malign and seemingly uncontrollable efflorescence of COVID-19 cases in the United States, most of us accept its absolute necessity. Nevertheless, we should not lose sight of what an astonishingly abrupt and radical change this represents.
Marshall McLuhan wrote that, in an increasingly globalized and interdependent world, a border should be defined as an “interval of resonance … a field of negotiated relationships rather than a line of authoritarian demarcation.” He was trying to get at the paradoxical nature of borders, how they divide nations, but also how they act as economic and cultural conduits. They are both barriers and bridges, dualistic, equivocal places, permeable membranes that simultaneously admit and interdict.
Mr. McLuhan’s somewhat abstruse prescription also seemed to describe a developing reality in many parts of the world – in Europe, for example, where national borders have come to resemble the line between any two Canadian provinces. Like abstractions, you know they are there but you often have trouble believing in them. And Mr. McLuhan’s dictum made a great deal of sense when one looked at the Canada-U.S. border, unique in its scale as a neighbourly fence rather than as a kind of peremptory obstruction to the passage of people, goods, services.
However, this hypothesis of increasingly irrelevant borders between nations assumes normal times. And by “normal,” I mean the absence of malevolent conditions: war, famine, drought, particularly savage political repression, grave trade disputes – anything that might trigger a rush of refugees – and disease.
What do we think about borders in a time of plague? They are still porous, open to ideas and to trade – nothing must stop the ceaseless rush of things we consume. But now, it seems that borders can be closed. The way they used to be in what we thought of as the old days, before globalization and economic unions and free-trade agreements and the absence of war.
Our national anthem sums up the Canadian mission: We stand on guard. Even in periods of harmonious relations with the U.S., we remain watchful, wary. We fear the arbitrary imposition of economic pain, the grief of cultural dilution, perhaps annihilation, at the hands of our overwhelmingly powerful neighbour. Our southern border always means something more to us than a superfluous, ambiguous line.
And when the stress is great enough – if a new disease begins its remorseless cull and the threat of infection on one side of the line becomes disproportionately unbearable, then “authoritarian demarcation” seems necessary to us once again. We desire it, demand it.
Like so many of our assumptions about our lives, open borders that we can cross more or less at will evaporate when abnormal conditions appear. And sooner or later, they will. Then we can’t help ourselves; we revert to our ancient and instinctive convictions and remedies: exclusion, stasis, xenophobia. Then borders take on their ancient commission: to protect “us” inside, to keep out the “other.”
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