Workshop Report | Security, Immigration, and the Cultures of the Canada-US Border


Workshop Audience


…nowhere is my natural anarchism more aroused than at national borders where patient and efficient public servants carry out their duties in matters on immigration and customs. I have never smuggled anything in my life. Why, then, do I feel an uneasy sense of guilt on approaching a customs barrier?

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962)

Niagara Falls. So good they built it twice, once in Upper New York State, once in Ontario. In many respects it sums the border region up: both cities share the same natural resource, not just a thundering source of light and power, but a tourist attraction to boot. And yet the Falls are apprehended so very differently on each side, just as each city, though united in their appreciation for kitsch[1], has fared palpably differently. It is also, of course, the iconic site of oh-so-many cultural events and representations, which range from the heroic (cue Superman II) to the downright mad (tightrope walkers and barrel riders galore).

In literary terms (my area), the most appropriate reference I can think of here is to John Steinbeck. In his travelogue, Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck and his trusted companion arrive on the Canadian side of an unnamed Niagara Falls border post, planning on a short cut from Buffalo to Detroit. The conversation between Steinbeck and the border official reads like a classic iteration of the frustrated traveler and leads to Steinbeck’s famous rant about how much he loathes governments and state interference in the lives of citizens. The Canadian official asks Steinbeck for the dog’s rabies vaccination certificate. Steinbeck confesses the elderly dog had his jabs so long ago, he doesn’t have the certificate, at which revelation he is advised to return to the US side—not, you understand, because Canada won’t permit him entry, but because the USA will probably turn him back at the end of his brief diversion.

“You can take him into Canada but the U.S. won’t let him back.”
“But technically I am still in the U.S. and there’s no complaint.”

“There will be if he crosses the line… Please understand, it is your own government, not ours. We are simply advising you. It’s the rule.”

Although none of the speakers at our workshop on Border Security and Immigration raised the spectre of rabies, pets, vaccinations, or, for that matter, Steinbeck, it was precisely these kinds of issues they were engaged with. The workshop, hosted by Munroe Eagles, Political Science Professor at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), was held at the Sheraton At the Falls in Niagara Falls, NY, on Saturday 31st May 2014. Ease of travel across the border, certification and documentation, prevention of invasive threats of various kinds, differentiated regulations, and much much more occupied conversation, which was invigoratingly driven by our four eminent speakers: Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly, Jeanne Monnet Chair in EU Border and Urban Region Polices at the University of Victoria; Emily Gilbert, Director of the Canadian Studies program at the University of Toronto; Geoffrey Hale, Public Policy expert and Professor in the Political Science Department of the University of Lethbridge; and Christopher Sands, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute.

Thinking broadly about fundamental questions—what does it mean for a border to “work” well? What functions do borders perform? How do “we” perceive them (which will of course differ hugely depending on who “we” are)? and so on—the day’s conversation was launched by Munroe Eagles, who elaborated briefly on the complex nature of the Niagara border region and its role in terms of security, trade, trafficking, and leisure, and on the ways in which the border highlights national cultural differences in policies such as immigration and multiculturalism.

EmmanuelBrunetJaillySpeaker1Munroe handed over to Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly, who spoke first under the heading of “Beyond the Border Action Plan: a Context,” which included an insight into his substantial international and multidisciplinary SSHRC-funded “Borders in Globalization” project. Relating that project to this discussion of the site-specific border, Emmanuel tentatively offered comparative context for his words by: invoking the Schengen Agreement (1985), an attempt within the European Economic Community (EEC) to abolish border checks, through which the so-called borderless Schengen Area was formed in 1995; and noting too that current “Neighbourhood Agreements” (European Neighbourhood Policy) between the EU and those peripheral European nations whose borders front North African states are roughly 1/20th the cost of the current US-Canada and US-Mexico border security.

Turning his attention to the Border Action Plan (Beyond the Border: A Shared Vision for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness, Feb. 4 2011), Emmanuel moved on to considerations of the aterritorial future implicit in current thinking about the border, suggesting that “the body has become a password” in a coded flow, and that the border is inherent in our own rights as citizens. A transaction, in other words, between a key (our biometric footprints) and a lock (the database), Emmanuel conjured a scenario in which he directly quoted George Orwell’s 1984 to describe not the surveillance era of the future but the era we are already in, an era in which surveillance itself is increasingly privatized and generalized. Predicting the end of the passport due to new technologies (acknowledging nevertheless that certain documentation—UK passports, for instance—still renders travel easier) he asserted that bi- and multilateral collaboration, rather than unilateral domestic policy, over border security has become not only desirable but crucial since 9/11.

“They say you didn’t cross the line.”

“That’s what I told you.”

“May I see your passport?”

“Why? I haven’t left the country. I’m not about to leave the country.”


Emily Gilbert

Our second speaker, cultural geographer Emily Gilbert, picked up many of the threads that Emmanuel had begun, not least over the question of the “territorial trap,” the bordered geographical spaces that technology increasingly challenges. Delineating the variety of ways—both cultural and political—in which the US has addressed their northern border as a site of concern about terrorism, Emily described the way Canada has been expected to “prove” itself a reliable partner in cross-border security. The Beyond the Border agreement, she argued, embodies a conservative mantra that facilitates the ongoing securitization of the border, since the December 2010 US Government Accountability Office Report into border security revealed that only 32 of over 4,000 boundary miles had reached an “acceptable level of control” (36). Emily’s examination of the border and the implications of the Beyond the Border Action Plan raised important questions about rights and freedoms in the surveillance era. While ostensibly designed to deal with the terrorist threat, what other kinds of impediments does such policy-making present to ordinary citizens? While acknowledging the validity of Emmanuel’s assertion that dual citizenship can entail greater rights, she also pointed out a number of significant home truths: multiple nationality can, of course, also raise barriers depending on the nations of citizenship in question, effectively meaning that borders are also closing to some, while opening to others; in relation to this, and far from the acquisition of additional rights, governments find it easy, in the case of dual nationals, to abdicate responsibility; some “bodies”, particularly racialised bodies, simply cannot cross borders with ease, technology or no; and processes that technology and collaboration make possible, such as pre-clearance, do not necessarily lead to faster or seamless crossing—their filtering processes, designed to identify the “more risky” often fail to account for the fact that the “more risky” are frequently also the “more at risk”.

Briefly outlining the various mechanisms for cross-border cooperation that have come into force in the last couple of decades, such as CANPASS, NEXUS, FAST, IBET (a result of the Smart Border Accord), and the Shiprider program, Emily then turned her attention to cultural texts that explore some of the issues raised here. Touching on the reality show Border Security: Canada’s Front Line, the movie Frozen River(2008), the CBC series The Border, Jim Lynch’s novel Border Songs(2010), Alexi Zentner’s The Lobster Kings (2014), and the graphic novel USNA: the United States of North America, Emily deftly demonstrated the mutually informing intersections of policy and cultural analysis.

Geoffrey HaleAfter lunch, Geoffrey Hale returned us to the complexities of policy making, under the title of “Multiple Borders, Multiple Challenges: Canadian Borders, Security and Immigration in Perspective.” Separate but overlapping spheres, security and immigration are generating an emerging perimeter in all spheres of policing—including land, air, sea, rail, and cyberspace. Focusing on these two issues has entailed dual priorities for Canadian border policy since 9/11: the facilitation of trade and travel and the maintenance of access to US markets and networks; and the reduction of risk of terrorist incidents in the US that emanate from Canada. In relation to security, Geoffrey explained, the dual mandate of closer law enforcement and intelligence cooperation between the US and Canada, and greater political and constitutional restraints on Canadian law enforcement practices based on specific risks may seem at odds. It is echoed, however, by a similar scenario for immigration, whereby cross-partisan commitment to relatively open immigration policies driven increasingly by economic considerations rub up against domestic pressures for narrower targeting of post-9/11 security measures. Intense as the pressure is to maintain the security of the border, in other words, anxieties about the specific powers of the police and the range of security and immigration activities that affect the general populace delimits how far such measures can go.

Echoing points made by both Emmanuel and Emily, Geoffrey offered a quick comparative overview of the differences in “cultures” of immigration in the US and Canada, where he noted that Canada operates concurrent jurisdiction between the provinces and the national government; and promotes immigration in such a way as to try to ensure its complementarity to economic and cultural factors. The US, on the other hand operates a national jurisdiction through Congress, and negotiates a clash between economic and cultural elements that is primarily a question of race and class. The differences between the two countries’ attitudes to immigration are perhaps most starkly illustrated, he reminded us, by policies such as visa waiver programmes, where Canada has 54 partner countries to the USA’s 36. Finishing by outlining the ways in which the present conservative government of Canada has reintroduced the concept of the border as perimeter, historically avoided due to political sensitivities and questions of sovereignty (including Indigenous sovereignty), Geoffrey demonstrated the degree to which those complex border issues depend, in the Beyond the Border plan and onwards, on an enhanced parallelism.

“I crossed the high iron bridge and stopped to pay the toll. The man leaned out the window.

“Go on,” he said, “it’s on the house.”

“How do you mean?”

“I seen you go through the other way a little while ago. I seen the dog. I knew you’d be back.”


Christopher SandsOur final speaker of the day, Christopher Sands, brought in an element of what one member of the audience called “think-tankery”—not surprisingly given his role at the Hudson Institute. That think-tankery began with the thought experiment inherent in his heading—“Frontier Transcendentalism”—in his assertion that the future of border crossing must embody the disintermediation of flows, and in his insistence that we move the furniture! Sitting in a circle rather than in classroom-style rows, Chris began to weave together the threads of previous discussion, observing first that prosperity and security in a border context derive from viscosity and velocity, while governance requires access to reliable data. Explaining the justification for technologisation of border sites, he described a kind of North American “Techno-Schengen,” a promise of seamless crossing, and effective data collection followed by off-border pattern analysis set against the reemergence of intermediaries for what would effectively become second-class citizens, and increasing governmental struggle to meet demands for both security and prosperity. Taking into account the necessary balance of the need to streamline law enforcement with fiscal restraint and regulatory reform, the governance of cross border flows was not, he insisted, a sine qua non; systems of regulation and control may perpetuate, but the border will not necessarily be a long term top priority.

Returning to the emphasis on individualization with which Emmanuel began, Chris predicted a concomitant shift from presumption of innocence to presumption of guilt—in other words a shift of emphasis away from the norm of entry and right to return signified by the (inter)national passport. The benefits of participating in such systems, Chris argued, mitigate against the loss of privacy and, by analogy, liberty implicit in technologised surveillance; the reality an acceptance of what underlies Emmanuel’s point that “the future of the Canada-US border is as a transparent border”—which is that to be materially borderless is to apportion to the authorities the right to amass significant amounts of data in order to track, trace, and predict the movement of individuals and its implicit risk.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Nobody believes it. Go ahead. You get a free ride one way.”

He wasn’t government, you see. But government can make you feel so small and mean that it takes some doing to build back a sense of self-importance.”

There isn’t room here to recount the discussion, which of course continued throughout breaks and over lunch, and included questions about the nature of that territorial trap, the impositions on individual privacy, and the impact of these issues on Indigenous peoples and borderlands communities. Our huge thanks go to Munroe Eagles for organizing the day, to the staff of the Sheraton At the Falls, to our four speakers, and of course to all who attended.


David Stirrup, June 2014


[1] Despite Niagara Falls NY’s best efforts, however, its waxwork museum and house of horrors are beaten hands down by the fiberglass dinosaurs on offer on Clifton Hill, Niagara Falls, ON.


One thought on “Workshop Report | Security, Immigration, and the Cultures of the Canada-US Border

  1. Pingback: Recent blog posts | Culture and the Canada-US Border

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