Skip to content

What difference does a line make?

A dozen or so mainly farm roads lace together the 632-kilometre border between Saskatchewan and its southern neighbours, North Dakota and Montana. Border crossings have to be maintained at each point.

A dozen or so mainly farm roads lace together the 632-kilometre border between Saskatchewan and its southern neighbours, North Dakota and Montana. Border crossings have to be maintained at each point. At sunset the majority of these lonely, high prairie crossings like the ones at Big Beaver or Climax close.

In pre-9/11 days conscientious border guards had a daily closing ritual. At whatever station all down the line they would place a line of bright orange traffic cones across the south bound west lane a few metres north of the actually crossing line. The process would be repeated on the east side, south of the line for the north bound traffic. This practice was meant to deter the illegal, uninspected entry of all manner of smugglers and rapscallions using the Oungre, Saskatchewan, or Antelope, Montana, as the centre of their evil enterprises.

Needless to say no self-respecting, late-working farmer hauling a piece of equipment from one field to another via the crossings would bother waiting until the officer returned the next morning. Like them with an eye, though, on my gas gauge, I slalomed through the cones on various occasions. To obey the letter of the law would have meant a long detour to a 24-hour crossing like North Portal.

The porosity of the 1,210-kilometre border between Yukon and Alaska is obvious. Our relative remoteness buffers us here as in rural Saskatchewan against many external threats. This can’t guard us, however, against the spreading impact of globalization. The values we hold and collectively promote can protect us in far more substantive ways. They can actually focus positively the waves sweeping away old and artificial national barriers, like boundaries.

What values are we talking about? As one example, Canadians discovered a long time ago that to maintain a huge, diverse land like ours active peace-building was required. We couldn’t simply sweep peoples away whom the governing elites saw as obstacles to progress like was done down south to the Cherokee and Choctaw peoples, among others, on the infamous Trail of Tears forced-relocation march. Nor could we ignore for generations corrosive social pathologies like slavery. Canadians had to and still are collectively working problems out and seeking to build consensus on difficult issues.

Conflicts did erupt but with dramatically different consequences. Add up all the casualties from the major conflicts pivotal to Canada’s history. On the Plains of Abraham in 1759, 260 soldiers died including both the generals, Wolfe and Montcalm. At the later bloodier Battle of Ste. Foy in April 1760, 1,950 soldiers died in the French victory. In key battles like Chateaugauy in the War of 1812 casualties were low, only 25 combatants died. In the bloodiest battle of that war on Canadian soil at Lundy’s Lane near Niagara Falls 258 died on both sides.

The Upper and Lower Canada Rebellions of 1837-38 saw just over a 100 die in direct confrontations. The Red River Rebellion of 1869-70 and the Northwest Rebellion of 1885 the total battle deaths at places like Batoche and Cut Knife numbered about 130 fallen. All totaled well fewer than 3,000 combatants died on Canadian soil over the sweep of nation-building here.

The week before last, I passed by the site of one minor battle of the Civil War in the United States. The Battle of Westport was waged in October 1864. In a desperate attempt to take pressure off of their heartland a Confederate force invaded western Missouri. At this one battle both sides suffered some 1,500 casualties each for a total of more fallen than in all the key battles waged on Canadian soil from 1759 to 1885.

Peace-building must remain a key value for us. The current work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission exemplifies this. As Canada begins its 144th year this can be one of our gifts to the world as well.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact