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Manitoba History: Book Review: Brandon R. Dimmel, Engaging the Line: How the Great War Shaped the Canada-US Border

by C. J. Taylor

Number 85, Fall 2017

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Brandon R. Dimmel, Engaging the Line: How the Great War Shaped the Canada-US Border. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016, 242 pages. ISBN 9780774832755, $29.95 (paperback)

Engaging the Line examines the impact of the First World War on three Canadian border communities: Windsor, Ontario; St. Stephen, New Brunswick; and White Rock, British Columbia. A central premise of the book is that, while before the war the Canada–US border was permeable with little regulation governing the movement of people between the two countries, the advent of the war brought about greater control by Canadian authorities, demanding passports and imposing greater scrutiny on entrants. This hardening of the border was most resented in those communities that had developed a transnational identity, such as Windsor (which shared aspects of geography, history and economy with neighbouring Detroit, Michigan), and St. Stephen, (which shared similar attributes with Calais, Maine). They shared, as the author explains, a “border crossing culture,” defined as “the thoughts, customs, events, policies, speeches, gossip, controversies and history surrounding the international boundary” (p. 6). The third community, White Rock, is examined with Blaine, Washington, but differs from the other two communities in lacking close cultural, economic, or historical ties with its American neighbour.

The homogeneity of the New Brunswick and Ontario transnational communities is explained historically by the fact that their establishment predated the American War of Independence. These community ties were able to persist beyond the disruptions of the War of 1812 and the Fenian Raids, events that the author shows were not felt as strongly here as in other places along the border. Another factor supporting continuing ties was that the populations, at least on the Canadian side, were largely homegrown, and did not experience the numbers of British immigrants seen elsewhere—influences that might have steered a community away from its continentalist heritage. Family ties remained strong in the transnational communities, with regular in and out migration across the border. Integration was further fostered by the emergence of transnational industries at the turn of the 20th century: the Ford Motor Company in Detroit/Windsor and the Ganong Chocolate Company of St. Stephen/ Calais. Branch plants in both locales facilitated bypassing tariffs to the neighbouring country. The branch plants were also helped by a fluid labour force that permitted workers from one country to work in a factory across the border, movement that further cemented transnational ties in these communities. As the author explains, the border seemed little more than a formality in this period, more like a provincial or state boundary than an international frontier.

The outbreak of war in 1914 threatened these cozy relationships in two obvious ways, for, while Canada was an early and eager ally of Great Britain, the United States remained officially neutral until 1917. First, the war brought a growing sense of Canadian nationalism, sometimes at odds with the continentalist heritage of the transnational communities, and second, the war brought a level of government control not seen before. Policies such as military conscription, government control of the armaments industry, and stricter surveillance of its border brought outside interference to these historically integrated communities.

The book examines in considerable detail the changing and sometimes persistent patterns of social cohesion in the transnational communities. In the case of Windsor/Detroit, for example, the author finds attachment to the old ways, even when Canadian factories were threatened by German-American saboteurs: “Despite the obvious threats to their safety from across the international boundary, the people of Windsor continued to press for relaxed immigration and customs policies during the war’s remaining years” (p. 49). St. Stephen/Calais, on the other hand, experienced greater ideological divisions as the two sides adopted national attitudes: “The war aroused a national pride not typically seen in this region: in St. Stephen and Milltown it renewed interest in the British connection, whereas across the river the US neutrality led the Calais Advertiser to make frequent criticisms of the war and, in one rather notorious case, of the men volunteering for the Canadian Expeditionary Force” (p. 100). But such ideological divisions quickly dissipated with the entry of the United Sates into the war.

The case of White Rock, British Columbia, and Blaine, Washington, is the exception that proves the rule for unlike the eastern examples, these places remained separated by the border and did not form a single transnational community. The reasons for this separation are both historical and geographical. First, and perhaps most significantly, the towns grew up after the establishment of the international boundary. There was no cultural memory of shared cultural attitudes. Second, the economies of the two towns were different: White Rock was a resort community for the BC lower mainland and had a sizable summer cottage population, while Blaine was a cannery and lumber town. Different economies led to different priorities with cannery effluent from south of the border being a source of conflict to the BC townspeople. Blaine’s citizens were different from their northern neighbours, and Washington state’s early laws prohibiting the sale of liquor introduced another source of tension between the two communities. Another factor affecting the border crossing experience was that both British Columbia and Washington had significant Asian populations at a time when immigration from this continent was restricted in both the US and Canada, leading to greater scrutiny on the part of immigration officials than their counterparts in other communities where the population was more uniformly of European descent. These historic and geographic divisions led to cultural differences that only became more pronounced at the outbreak of war. As the author argues: “The frayed relationship with White Rock was almost certainly a factor contributing to Blaine’s relative uninterest in the war and specifically the Canadian war effort” (p. 134).

The book contributes to our understanding of transnational communities, showing how geography and history affected different communities, while arguing that “it was during the First World War that the border we know today began to take shape” (p. 161). I found the first point interesting and compelling as an argument; the last point less so, as I think that recent events have led to a hardening of the border far beyond what was imagined in 1914. I remember, for example, crossing the border with my family in the 1960s and having the US customs officer looking us over, asking if we were Canadians and if we had any fruit, before waving us through without any more ceremony. Compare that to passport controls after the events of 9/11. By focussing on Canadian border controls, the author virtually ignores American policies and controls—which became more serious after the end of the war with the advent of Prohibition in 1920 and with the passage of the US Immigration Act in 1924 that placed strict quotas on immigration, even from Canada. A thorough discussion of border history needs to better distinguish the various components of border control from tourist or casual visits, to cross-border working or resettlement, and customs and excise. And a more thorough examination of transnational communities would need to examine Aboriginal examples such as the Mohawk community in Quebec/New York and the Blackfoot communities in Alberta/Montana.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 7 January 2021

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