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Borderline Crime: Fugitive Criminals and the Challenge of the Border

By Bradley Miller

Review By Brandon Dimmel

January 2, 2018

BC Studies no. 198 Summer 2018  | p. 196-7

Bradley Miller, an assistant professor of history at the University of British Columbia, has produced an unprecedented look at the patchwork development of the law as it pertains to the Canada-U.S. border over the course of the period following the War of 1812 and preceding the First World War. An important and helpful book for legal historians and historians of the Canada-U.S. border, it lays a framework for examining how the border was interpreted as a legal and political entity during its most formative years in the nineteenth century.

Borderline Crime examines how the slow and inconsistent introduction of an international boundary running across thousands of miles of forest, rivers, lakes, plains, and mountains was interpreted and used by criminals, lawmakers, and law enforcement officials as Canada and the United States slowly and awkwardly stretched their sovereignty from sea to sea. It was a huge and challenging undertaking that, given today’s climate at the border, is hard to imagine. Miller’s book effectively reveals how this struggle to create and enforce a border took shape and how many Canadians and Americans sought to exploit the immaturity of their respective federal governments in order to evade the law.

That the Canada-U.S. border was implemented in a patchwork, ambiguous fashion over more than a century is not a new position. What is new, however, is the way Miller explores how this took place: there is fascinating discussion of how criminals of all kinds – from “undesirable” immigrants (usually visible minorities) to military deserters to white-collar crooks to violent offenders – evaded the law by using the border as a shield against prosecution. Miller provides a glimpse at the diversity of these criminals and their crimes and how they sought to use the porous and adolescent nature of the boundary to avoid being held accountable to legal systems that overwhelming favoured affluent white, Anglo-Saxon peoples.

To accomplish this, Miller uses a vast array of archival sources, some of which have never been consulted for this purpose before. There is no shortage of primary research here, with correspondence between government officials and legal experts dominating Miller’s endnotes.

Nevertheless, Miller’s book leaves some questions unanswered. First and foremost, where is the connection between his focus on the legal side of things with the growing body of historical research focusing on the development of the Canada-U.S. border, including migration experiences? Miller’s historiographical section makes no mention of major works in this area, including those from historians like Bruno Ramirez, Randy Widdis, Reginald Stuart, or Marcus Lee Hansen.

Miller acknowledges that his book doesn’t have a “normative argument,” and for some readers this may also be an issue. Instead, Miller says his book “tries to think beyond exigent political factors or social paranoias as the primary agents of law formation and to explore the often nuanced relationship between law and society.” It’s not a clear direction for the book, and the result is a somewhat shapeless structure.

And yet, it does not appear Miller has any interest in creating the most comprehensive legal history of the border. Instead, he has established a useful foundation for other historians to fill in the gaps by making the connection between how the border took shape according to law and how this development played out along the border itself. In any case, we can expect to see Miller’s book mentioned in many works on the history of the Canada-U.S. border in the years to come.

Borderline Crime: Fugitive Criminals and the Challenge of the Border
Bradley Miller
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016. 304pp. $65.00 cloth.