How to teach the border, and what does it teach us?: Some notes towards a set of Canada-US Border pedagogical resources

by Kelly Hewson


“The border is not, then, simply an indisputable physical feature. Like the border of nations, it may appear fixed, but as a physical manifestation of complex social practices and conventions it is always susceptible to alteration and renegotiation.” (Brown and Duguid, “Borderline Issues: Social and Material aspects of Design,” 1994)

In the article from which this excerpt is taken, Brown and Duguid are writing about information technology design. They use the terms centre, periphery and border, but not in the way that economists or sociologists or political scientists might. Rather, all elements are contingent upon the given situation of use, all of which fluctuate interdependently based on the circumstances of the user and her task. The centre, to simplify, is the definitive information; the periphery is that information which is excluded from the centre; the border is the meeting of these two. The inclusion and exclusion that determine centre and periphery depend on the social practices of the community.

This summary abbreviates the depth and range of Brown and Duguid’s work, but it highlights, I hope, the elegance and flexibility of their model, a model which allows for a slight retrofit wherein I can explain 1) the kind of research Lee Easton and I have been undertaking; 2) the particular pedagogical activities such research has elicited; and 3) some possible ways to ‘teach’ the protean Canada-US border.

Allow me to demonstrate what an application of my version of Brown and Duguid’s design yields:

Let us say Lee and I want to understand how students view the Canada-US border in Guy Maddin’s film, The Saddest Music in the World. The ‘users’ would be the 30 to 35 students (in some of their diversity—as a way to access their viewing habits and to avoid the monolith of The Student, we hand out questionnaires in which students can choose or not to self-identify according to class, gender, sexuality as well as by discipline, stage of career) who constitute a first-year class. Their definitive task, or the centre, would be responding to the border question. Peripheral to that would be what viewers are including and excluding in their viewing responses. (As Brown and Duguid proffer, the theoretical divide between centre and periphery is never precise). What we have done in previous research projects– once we’ve received the written and transcribed the verbal responses to the film– is discourse analysis: we identify patterns of presences and absences in said responses, thereby provisionally categorising a series of conventions about what students render central/visible as well, and often more significantly, what is peripheral/barely or in/visible.

The act of teaching enters the scenario by creating the platform, so to speak, for meanings about the border in the film to develop. The activities of teaching also create borders, borders which limit certain meanings to encourage others. What our engagement with the Canada-US border in film studies has taught us – and what Lee’s recent theoretical work elaborates more fully — is that there are some commonly reproduced practices for viewing it. (Brown and Duguid refer to the set of conventions that travel with an artefact as a ‘‘portable context”). We can expect to hear and see among the following:

  • the border as physical feature only, hence, as settled, neutral and pretty much on the periphery
  • the border as symbol – part material, part social
  • the border as opportunity for a narrative experience or affective response
  • the border as psychic mechanism, deflecting, denying, displacing, disavowing
  • the border as identity marker, separating what constitutes Canada/Canadianness from what constitutes America/Americanness

Depending on what it is we’d like the students to ‘see’ when we ask them to view the Canada-US border, we can orchestrate activities designed to bring to the fore any assumptions, digressive manuevres, blinds spots, and/or inaccuracies about the specifically represented border. Always to our surprise, though, these activities end up doing much more than remediating not-quite-there responses; oft-times the creative, critically astute outcomes surprise us out of our ‘expert’ teacher-selves. For instance, as Lee’s conference paper demonstrated, asking students to resituate an American film in a Canadian context (in this case, D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation) has proven a particularly fruitful exercise. Similarly, our development of a gap analysis project, and the results of it, overwhelmingly demonstrated to us that the “gap” the majority of students in each of our classes analysed in Canadian cinema is a fictional treatment of settler (not always white) violence towards indigenous peoples. After identifying the gap, they were to develop a film pitch to address it. Some of our classes’ pitches included a film noir treatment involving missing aboriginal women and a negligent police force; a hockey/drug film in which Team Alliance from the north of America (variously racialized and gendered) “face off” against Team Americas (comprised of white and brown gang members); a disaster film contrasting the flood relief efforts in an affluent white neighbourhood versus a first nations community; and a “happily ever after” film in which an aboriginal child is reunited with her birth mother at the behest of her adoptive white mother.

What teaching the border in a first-year film studies course teaches us is there is a growing awareness of settler borders and how they continue to disappear and disadvantage indigenous peoples. The majority of our diverse student bodies are recognising that the story they’ve been taught, told and believed about Canada is incomplete, if not fraudulent, and their mini-productions were presented as earnest attempts at filmic redress.

What teaching the border in a 4000 level class English class on Culture and the Canada-US Border (which I led in Fall 2014) teaches us is settler students’ awareness of their complicity in the structures of settler colonialism accompanied by a desire to act on that knowledge. While I have not had the chance to analyse fully the student responses from this course, Lee can attest to my sense that much of my pedagogical efforts were expended on what I’d call border patrol: creating verbal boundaries around the strong, impassioned but problematically borderless affects repeatedly infusing our community of practice. The heavy investments in Canadian multiculturalism we’ve noticed in students in previous projects emerged here, one of the results of which was too quick and frequent a move to subsume difference AND resume control, typically by re-authoring new narratives, featuring themes of recognition of settler wrongs and conciliatory, reparative gestures to start anew. The idea that no matter how empathetic we, settler allies, might be, there are some borders that we cannot cross, and those we may be invited to must be crossed in meaningful, unexploitative ways is difficult knowledge for those of us used to dictating the terms of engagement, nay, the terms of ‘civilisation.’

But members of the class wrestled with this difficult knowledge in some thoughtful, generative ways: prompted by Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, a student panel invited the class to consider what a Canada-US borderlands consciousness might require. In one of the rare moments of ideological consensus, the class agreed on the need for what Julie Cairnie has called “the unsettling of the white capital ‘i’,” with cautionary notes struck about how then to move into non-hierarchical relationships. Motivated by Harsha Walia’s Border Imperialism and the No One is Illegal groups in other major Canadian cities, a student who presented at the CCSUB-sponsored session of the Canadian Sociological Association in Ottawa in June applied for and received undergraduate research funds to undertake a study of Calgary’s undocumented population and the services (or lack thereof) available to them. A student of Metis heritage, eager to begin her career as an elementary school teacher, re-visioned one in a series of children’s books about the settling of the West to incorporate lost histories and to make explicit we are all treaty people. Attracted by the political and poetic possibilities of the hemispheric, another student created the attached “map poem” (See pdf: Map Poem Project)

What these and other engagements with and enactments of the Canada-US border have taught us is that the field of border studies is rich in dissonant, transformative, and relational possibilities, a critical pedagogue’s dream.


New Book | Discrepant Parallels: Cultural Implications of the Canada-US Border


discrepant parallelsDiscrepant Parallels: Cultural Implications of the Canada-US Border, by CCUSB co-investigator Gillian Roberts, is now available from McGill-Queen’s University Press.

From MQUP:

The 49th parallel has long held a symbolic importance to Canadian cultural nationalists as a strong, though permeable, border. But in contemporary Canadian culture, the border has multiple meanings, and imbalances of cultural power occur both across the Canada-US border as well as within Canada.

Discrepant Parallels examines divergent relationships to, and investments in, the Canada-US border in a variety of media, such as travel writing, fiction, poetry, drama, and television. Tracing cultural production in Canada since the 1980s through the periods of FTA and NAFTA negotiations, and into the current, post-9/11 context, Gillian Roberts grapples with the border’s changing relevance to Canadian nationalist, Indigenous, African Canadian, and Latin American perspectives. Drawing on Kant and Derrida, she theorizes the 49th parallel to account for the imbalance of cultural, political, and economic power between the two countries, as well as the current challenges to dominant definitions of Canadianness.

Focusing on a border that is often overshadowed by the contentious US-Mexico divide, Discrepant Parallels analyzes the desire to establish Canadian-American sameness and difference from a multitude of perspectives, as well as its implications for how Canada is represented within and outside its national borders.

Divided by a Common Border?

by Munroe Eagles

Munroe Eagles is Director of the Canadian Studies Academic Program and Professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo.

On January 21st, 2015, the Republican-dominated House Committee on Homeland Security in Washington voted along party lines to pass the Secure our Borders First Act of 2015. The bill was introduced by Committee Chair Michael McCaul, a Republican Congressman who represents a district located just west of Houston. According to McCaul, the bill requires that the Secretary of Homeland Security “gain and maintain operational control of the borders of the United States.”

the Secure Our Borders First pocket cardThe “First” in the bill’s name suggests that secure borders should come before something else – in this case referring to President Obama’s executive action on immigration reform. As Rep. McCaul argued: “Our border must be dealt with through regular order and in a step-by-step approach – not through any type of comprehensive immigration reform. We must stop the bleeding at the border. The bill matches resources to needs, putting fencing where fencing is needed and technology where technology is needed. My constituents in my home district and my home state of Texas spoke loud and clear. They want the border secured.” Continue reading

Theorising the Canada-US Border


parisposterminiRegistration is now open for Theorising the Canada-US Border, a two day CCUSB symposium taking place 15-16 May, 2015, in Paris, France.

The symposium is the last of a three-year series of CCUSB events, which have taken place in London, Algoma, Niagara Falls, Nottingham and Calgary.

To find out more information and to register for the symposium, please visit the website, here:

The event is free to attend and refreshments will be provided. The deadline for registration is Friday April 17th.

Guest Post: Reflections of a Border Dweller

 Antonia Levi


Point Roberts: “Almost Heaven, Almost Canada”

Two years ago, after a final confusion with Immigration Canada, and wanting to continue my life in Vancouver BC, I took the path of least resistance and moved to Point Roberts, Washington, population 1300 or soish. It’s not just a border town, it’s an American exclave unconnected to the rest of the lower 48. The nearest Canadian town, Tsawwassen, is a suburb of Greater Vancouver and is divided from Point Roberts by a narrow country road and a drainage ditch. At some points, we literally look into each other’s windows. My own home is about 300 meters (or 328 yards) from the Canadian border, and it takes me 30 or 40 minutes to drive to downtown Vancouver depending on the time of day. Continue reading

Call for Papers | Theorising the Canada-US Border

CCUSB SYMPOSIUM: Theorising the Canada-US Border
University of Kent at Paris, 15-16 May, 2015

Border theory tends to be associated with the multiple strands of mestizo/a lived experience in the Mexico-US borderlands. But how far can site-specific border theory travel, even within North America? To what extent do the insights of Mexico-US border theory—including notions of hybridity and the accommodating spaces of los intersticios in the borderlands—offer a useful theoretical framework for discussing cultural manifestations of the Canada-US border? How does the 49th parallel’s oft-proclaimed status as ‘the longest undefended border in the world,’ its particular colonial histories and neo-colonial present, its scarring of Indigenous territories, and its simultaneous division and linking of two G8 nation-states inflect the border theories of such key texts as Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), Renato Rosaldo’s Culture and Truth (1989), Emily Hicks’s Border Writing (1991), and Héctor Calderón & José David Saldívar, Criticism in the Borderlands (1991)?

These texts cross a range of disciplinary developments, which include interventions in feminist theory, queer theory, race and ethnicity studies, and wider applications to geographical borders elsewhere in the world, as well as a “crossing” into the older borderlands studies pursued in the social sciences. That these four texts largely pertain to lived experience in the South American and Mexico-US borderlands, and that the concepts derived from them often extrapolate universal qualities from local concerns, present both a challenge and a problem. If the problem—of generalization and loose abstraction—is obvious, the challenge to scholars of border theory surely lies in rendering site-specificity to borders/borderlands, while theorizing those sites in ways that contribute generally to understandings of borderlands experience.

This two-day symposium seeks to cultivate Canada-US border theory. We invite proposals for papers that consider border theory at the 49th parallel, that theorise the border, and that explore the potential of theory to illuminate the cultural implications of the Canada-US border’s functions . Whether applying and testing border theory in its present iterations, or seeking to theorise the Canada-US border more specifically, work that considers the cultural contexts of the Canada-US border is in short supply in border theory. This symposium aims to address that deficiency by exploring the specific issues and challenges, and the potential interventions into border theory, presented by the Canada-US border/borderlands, and questions of border crossing, border culture, the ‘undefended’ border, etc.

Topics of interest include, but are not limited to, papers that consider any of the following in relation to the Canada-US border, as well as papers that seek to apply border theory to specific cultural texts:

The discursive limits of border theory
Indigenizing border theory at the Canada-US border
Indigenous sovereignty and the politics of recognition/refusal at the border
Theorising resistance and activism at the border
Canada-US border metaphors
Metaphor vs lived experience (theoretical vs. empiricist approaches)
Application of cultural theory from other paradigms (eg. postcolonialism, regionalism, critical regionalism, etc) to the Canada-US border
The political implications of theoretical work
Canada-Mexico “borderlands”
Comparative Mexico-US and Canada-US border theory
Unsettling the nation/state

Please send 250 word proposals plus a brief CV to by Monday December 1st 2014.

Workshop Report | Aesthetics and the Canada-US Border


3rd Culture and the Canada-US Border Workshop | Calgary, 19th and 20th September 2014



loft112Loft 112 sits in a liminal space in Calgary, on the edge of downtown, in the East Village, currently in the midst of gentrification. As a space dedicated to literary and artistic practice, it provided the perfect venue for the third workshop of the Leverhulme Trust-funded Culture and the Canada-US Border research network, focusing on aesthetics and the Canada-US border. Over two days, CCUSB network members and workshop participants were treated to four presentations of aesthetic sensitivity, constructive energy, and searing intellect. Continue reading