Benjamin Hoy Transcript

This is a book about the history of the border that really defines Canada and the United States. This is sort of the birth of both countries. It’s sort of a moment of incredible change and solidification but also a moment of fluidity, of the continuance of this sort of continued brotherhood or sisterhood that links these countries together and the difficult history behind it.

It’s a history of drawing borders on land that you do not actually control. It’s a history of erasing older borders as you’re building new ones. It’s a really complex history. I think that’s where I really fell in love with this every time I thought I understood how this border worked, I would look at a different group or a different time period and I’d see a fundamentally different border and what I came to understand is that that was not an accident, that it was never intended to be a border that treated people the same.

That from its very inception the Canada-U.S border was built like a wall of many heights and so if you encountered it as an Indigenous person or as a woman or as a British settler, the barrier or the way the wall treated you, shifted. I think that’s sort of one of the most fascinating pieces is that history is with us today. So, the book is sort of about where this emerges and how this develops and the implications that this has left us with when you visit an airport or a train station where you try and cross by a car.

One of the things that I was hoping to do with this book is to create a much larger framework than had really existed about the border before. There are incredible books on the Chinese experience with Chinese Exclusion in the United States or the Lakota’s experience or the Stó꞉lō’s experience with the border — tons of regional studies, tons of studies on individual groups, administrative organizations. We have histories on border patrols and immigration and customs but what sort of confused me, when I first started doing this work, is none of those stories seem to fit.

The stories about the customs agency seem so very different than the stories I was reading about the Stó꞉lō, so very different than the Chinese Exclusion. All of them seem to have a different temporal period, a different focus, a different set of conclusions and a lot of this book came out of me just trying to figure out what on earth is going on and so one of my hopes is that I can help provide other scholars with a sort of basic framework around which to begin to investigate at different levels — whether it’s a really local level or a national level — this incredible institution that shapes so much of what we do.

This is going to sound weird but in ten years time I’m hoping that people will look back fondly on my book but say something like, and we’ve come so much further, right? There’s an incredible amount of work to be done on the Canada border, the U.S-Mexico border has taken so much attention, especially in the United States that we’ve sort of lost track of this border, that is, in the 19th century, well-defended, large amounts of money is being invested in it. It shapes the United States and Canada in colossal ways and yet we don’t actually know that much about it.

So, if in ten years’ time, my book is sort of the best that there is, I’m going to be actually really disappointed. I’m hoping that it will spawn a wealth of scholarship and help people avoid some of the challenges that I ran into and try to understand this really important history.

Historians have a bad habit of making our craft feel lonely — sitting in a dusty archive, one name appears on a monograph. But, I think, one of the things that I’m hoping the audience will sort of get out of this project is how many people helped. More than 80 people contributed — students, faculty members, and community members lent their knowledge and I think one of the successes of the book is simply because of the scale at which support was given.

One of my hopes is that people take out of this book that most of the best work that we do is done in teams and that we need to get rid of this older idea that historians are doing this on their own because I don’t think that’s often the case and I think our ability to engage with the public is reliant on having dozens of different contributors to make our work as strong as it can be.

One of the things that surprised me the most was that when you’re building a border, one of the first ways that you make a border powerful is by restricting your own power and I was expecting the opposite, right? That when you’re building a border it’s about imposing power on someone else but the first moment, especially when you’re sort of weak, it’s restricting your own authority, your own ability to cross a border and pull back criminals, your own ability to extend power into foreign lands.

That’s really what you’re drawing is the edges of your own power and so when you mention the Lakota, this is one of these sort of shocking points for both Canada-Britain and the United States as they’re building this border, is it’s really frustrating you’re spending all of this money surveying a border, you’re spending all of this money sending personnel and forcing, creating new rules that are so complex, it takes volumes and volumes of information.

And then understandably the people on the ground are quite smart and they think, I can make money off this border or I can escape to freedom off this border or I can use this border that’s being created for something completely different than what it was intended to do and very quickly they’re having to deal with these problems over and over.

International disputes, draft dodgers crossing back and forth across the border to collect bounties on both sides. The Lakota will cross in one direction, the Cree will cross and the other as a way of fighting colonialism. So, I think that’s one of the really interesting legacies of the border is it’s not just built at the national level. I think that was one of the big takeaways that I learned was how important these local disputes were that they filtered all the way up to the national level and fundamentally changed the world that we live in today.