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Review

Parallel Destinies: Canadian-American Relations West of the Rockies

By Kenneth Coates, John M. Findlay

November 4, 2013

Review By Gordon Hak

THIS COLLECTION of essays came out of a 1996 conference in Seattle that celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Treaty, the agreement that largely fixed the boundary west of the Rocky Mountains between the United States and what would become Canada. A number of prominent scholars from Canada and the United States were asked “to consider the historical significance and impact of the Canadian-American border on the lands and peoples west of the Rocky Mountains”(vii). The editors added one previously published essay to the conference presentations to create this volume. 

BC and the American Pacific Northwest are similar geographically and climatically, but divided politically into separate nations, prompting intriguing questions about the societies that developed. While there have been a few studies that consider the American Northwest and BC together, the borderland theme has not been as prominent in this region as in, for example, the area surrounding the Mexico-Texas border. The notion of a borderland, at one level, suggests a place where a distinct cultural and economic identity transcends the border, shaped by an ongoing interchange of people and ideas. But borderland studies can also expose and probe difference, drawing out cultural and political distinctions in contiguous areas which are ecologically and geographically similar. 

In an introductory article, Ken Coates effectively sketches out the broad patterns. He characterizes the region’s history in terms of four periods. During the time of aboriginal occupation, there was no border and much interaction between First Nations up and down the coast. The second period, the time of colonial encroachment when Russian, British, Spanish, and American traders and politicians jockeyed for supremacy, did not suddenly disrupt First Nation patterns, but did lead to the establishment of the border and set the stage for subsequent developments. Coates’ third stage, the imposition of the modern state, spans the late nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, and during this time the Canadian and American governments exerted authority in their respective regions. While there were some exceptions, economic, social, and political developments made “the American Northwest increasingly American and British Columbia increasingly Canadian” (17). In the contemporary age, what Coates calls the Postboundary or Modern Era, global and technological factors are challenging national boundaries and spurring the increased movement of people, ideas and trade, but, suggests Coates, this will not necessarily lead to the establishment of an integrated region. Overall, the border has been fundamental in defining the two regions: “it would not be an exaggeration to argue that the region’s history and character have been determined by the boundary’s existence and functioning” (3). 

Having established the context, six case studies follow. In these essays we learn much more about the history of British Columbia than that of Washington and Oregon. The authors are not primarily borderland historians and for the most part have tweaked their research interests to meet the requirements of the conference and the editors. Indeed, the national border is often an opportunity to explore themes such as colonizers and aboriginals, immigrant ethnic groups, First Nation and industrial capitalist economies, military policy, and environmental concerns. The articles are of high quality and each deserves a quick note, as they are relevant to many not necessarily interested in the borderland theme. 

Daniel Marshall provocatively discusses the American presence during the Fraser River gold rush of the late 1850s. The war against First Nations on the Fraser reflected the American frontier, and this influence was more important than that of either Britain or Canada in 1858. The policies of Governor James Douglas, argues Marshall, were a response to the might of the American miners. John Lutz discusses the yearly southward migration of aboriginal people from northerly coastal reaches to Victoria, Vancouver Island, and Puget Sound in the years from 1854 to 1869, stressing the co-existence of a traditional First Nations economy and an industrial capitalist economy in the Native world. Making a case for a critical materialist analysis of BC history, Jeremy Mouat examines American and Canadian railway capitalists in southeastern British Columbia at the turn of the twentieth century, while Patricia Wood draws out the ethnic dimension in understanding the border, noting that for working-class Italian immigrants the border was less significant than for Anglo-Canadians. “In general,” she argues, “in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the forty-ninth parallel was not a meaningful line for immigrants” (113). 

Joseph E. Taylor III traces the disastrous salmon policy perpetrated by American and Canadian governments over the past hundred years by looking at the Fraser River fishery. Fish, it seems, do not respect the border imposed by nation-states. Galen Roger Pérras discusses Canadas push to retain control of defending its West Coast from 1934 to 1942, despite pressure from the United States, and Carl Abbott looks at regional economic prospects, especially the idea of a unified Cascadia, defined by economics and ecology, that would include BC and the American Pacific Northwest. He concludes that despite the trends of the contemporary world, they are “not likely to turn northwestern North America into a region where borders do not matter” (213). 

No work of this kind would be complete without getting into the swamp of national identities, exploring the differences and similarities between Canadian and American cultures. Chad Reimer takes a historiographical perspective on the Oregon Treaty, talking about the construction of history in the 1840s. Both American and British writers offered versions of the past to justify claims in the region; these first histories set the tone for the different future narratives offered by British Columbia historians, on the one hand, and American historians on the other. 

Two final essays on national distinctions provide much fun with broad discussions that spill over regional boundaries. Donald Worster, concerned about the preservation of wilderness throughout the world, looks to the Canadian and American experiences to try and understand why some nations value wilderness. He concludes that the dream of freedom, the cornerstone of American culture, underpins the active, longstanding commitment in the United States to protect wilderness areas, a tradition that is not echoed in Canada, where the freedom ideology is less deeply rooted. Worster, an American, comments: “Canadians still do not seem inclined to follow our wilderness preservation lead quickly, enthusiastically, or faithfully” (252). Michael Fellman bemoans the lack of recognition accorded to American immigrants in Canada and attacks Canadian anti-Americanism. An American who migrated to Canada in 1969, Fellman surveys Canadian history from the early nineteenth century to the present, arguing that an overblown anti-Americanism blinds English Canadians to the American influences at the core of their identity. 

Parallel Destinies brings together a number of strong articles that are of special interest to British Columbia historians. Readers should not be put off by the political/diplomatic-sounding title, for the volume has a wide-ranging appeal.