Saturday, 19 May 2012


About an hour before we drove into Winnipeg, I asked Daniel where he thought the absolute centre of Canada would be, between the eastern and western boundaries. We thought it must be around here somewhere, and not long after we passed a sign which announced the point at the longitudinal center of Canada! Following the logic of the old joke, we might say that we have finished driving into Canada; now we're driving out of it.

The difference was the line in the sand.

Centrepoints and borders are such strange things, because they account for so many histories and encounters over the past several centuries. This is true in North American and also in Indigenous cultures.Today we passed a number of borders. The first was a little way out of Thunder Bay, where a sign with pictures of a moose and bear announced the transition between waterways that drain into the Atlantic and the Arctic:

We kept on travelling up the 'King's Highway' towards Winnipeg, passing more borders along the way... lunch at a town called Dryden (where there was a street called 'Colonization St' which ran off the main road which was called 'Government St' - seriously? I wonder who meets at the corner of Colonization and Government?)... and the line between one time zone and another.

And finally, after three days of driving through Ontario (three days!), we passed another sign which announced the crossing of another line:

Finally, we're in province #2. We'll be in Manitoba until some time tomorrow when we cross into Saskatchewan. I've heard a lot about the history around here, and as we followed the GPS directions which directed us to drive across a particular bridge, we noticed the name of the river: 'Red River.' Wow. The Red River. Suddenly that history - the history which I remember in snapshots and phrases like 'the Red River rebellion' - started to come to life and I was reminded once again that lines are drawn in the sand all the time.

Because, of course, a line in the sand is never just a line in the sand. The line is always a claim about the relationship between people, and the sand is always someone's land. In this case, Indian land.

It turns out that each of the lines we crossed today had another story. A few feet away from the Arctic/ Atlantic line, for example, is a small sign which records an additional history of the site:

"...This watershed was declared the inland boundary of the tract surrendered to the Crown by Ojiwba Indians in the Robinson Superior Treaties of 1850. It was also widely considered to be the southern limit of Rupert's Land, the vast, ill-defined Hudson's Bay Company territory transferred to Canada in 1870, and it figured prominently in the Ontario-Manitoba boundary dispute of 1883-4."

Hmmm. So, maybe the line between the Arctic and Atlantic-bound waters is not merely a fact of geography but also of human constructions: legal, social, cultural, imperial. The significance of this specific landscape is not found only in its ecosystem, but also the in the history of negotiation and control which produces the contemporary moment in which even the historical marker itself is sidelined by the big happy picture of a moose and a bear.

The difference was the line in the sand.

There is a question here about naming and who gets to name: whose story or definition is held as the 'truth'? On Tuesday nite as we sat in Wendys and enjoyed our dinner, one of the girls delivered some fried to our table and said 'I hope you don't mind me asking, but where are you both from?' I answered for both of us: "I'm from Toronto and he's from  Vancouver." Daniel was surprised and amused that I'd called him a Vancouverite, and maybe it was a little crazy seeing as we hadn't even left his and Kent's house in Penetang yet, but on some level it was already true... it was no less true than any other story, and far less complicated that the 'actual' truth.

The interesting question, I suppose, is that the girl at Wendy's didn't know enough of the context to question what we told her, and the narrative fit the expectation she had of us on the basis of how we (or presumably I) speak so she had no cue to remain vigilant about remaining productively critical taking our story at face value... just like the readers of signs about lines in the sand. Who cares about a Treaty from the 19th century? (This isn't a rhetorical question.) What does it mean to draw lines of longitude and timezones on vast stretches of space on a map? What other lines are there which are not marked by such maps (trade routes, language families, traplines, genealogies, animal migrations, etc)? Why did I call it a 'rebellion' in my head? 

This evening after we settled into our hotel room, we had two visitors: Niigaan and Mary Jane, two fabulous Indigenous scholars who teach in different institutions here. Our conversations worked their way around different borders: intellectual, institutional, disciplinary, aspirational, familial, spatial, temporal... more lines being drawn in the sand: more lines, more stories, more land.

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