History Comes To The Plains

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The Forty-ninth Parallel ran directly through my childhood, dividing me in two. In winter, in the town on the Whitemud, Saskatchewan, we were almost totally Canadian. The textbooks we used in school were published in Toronto and made by Canadians or Englishmen; the geography we studied was focussed upon the Dominion, though like our history it never came far enough west or close enough to the present to be of much use to us. The poetry we memorized seemed, as I recall it now, to run strongly toward warnings of disaster and fear of the dark and cold. The songs we sang were “Tipperary,” “We’ll Never Let the Old Flag Fall,” “The Maple Leaf Forever,” and “God Save the King”; the flag we saluted was the Union Jack; the clothes and Christmas gifts we bought by mail came from the T. Faton mail-order house. The games we played were ice hockey and curling; our holidays, apart from Thanksgiving and Christmas, which were shared by both countries, were Dominion Day, Victoria Day, the King’s Birthday.

But if winter and town made Canadians of us, summer and the homestead restored us to something nearly, if not quite, American. We could not be remarkably impressed with the physical differences between Canada and the United States, for our lives slopped over the international boundary, which was the south boundary of our homestead, every summer day. Our plowshares bit into Montana sod every time we made the turn at the end of the field. I trapped Saskatchewan and Montana flickertails indiscriminately and spread strychnine-soaked wheat without prejudice over two nations.

The people we neighbored with were all in Montana, half our disc of earth and half our bowl of sky acknowledged another flag than ours, the circle of darkness after the prairie night came down was half American, and the few lights that assured us we were not alone were all across the line. The mountains whose snow peaks drew my wistful eyes on June days were the Bear Paws, down below the Milk River. For all my eyes could tell me, no line existed, for the obelisk of black iron that marked our southeastern corner was only a somewhat larger version of the survey stakes that divided our whole world into uniform squares. It would never have occurred to us to walk along the border from iron obelisk to iron obelisk; and if we had walked along it, we would have found only more plains, more burnouts, more shallow runoff coulees down which the drainage from Saskatchewan escaped furtively across toward the Milk, more gopher holes, more cactus, more stinkweed and primroses, more hawk shadows slipping over the scabby flats.

There was not a customhouse for miles; in the summers we lived there we never saw a customs officer or a policeman, either American or Canadian. Even yet, between Willow Creek and Treelon, a degree and a half of longitude, there is not a single settlement or a customs station.

We ignored the international boundary in ways and to degrees that would have been impossible if it had not been a line almost completely artificial. And yet our summer world was a different world from the Canadian world of town. The holidays we celebrated were the Fourth of July and Labor Day, and the pièce de résistance of a holiday get-together was a ball game. In summer when we bought anything by mail we bought it not from T. Eaton but from the lavish and cosmopolitan catalogues of Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward.

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Indistinguishable and ignored as it was, artificially as it split a country that was topographically and climatically one, the international boundary marked a divide in our affiliations, expectations, loyalties. Like the pond that lay on the divide east of the Cypress Hills, we could flow into either watershed or into both simultaneously. Summer and winter were at odds in us; we were Americans without the education and indoctrination that would have made us confident of our identity; we were Canadians in everything but our sentimental and patriotic commitment.

Whatever was being done to us by our exposure to Canadian attitudes, traditions, and prejudices—an exposure made hectic by the strain of the war in which Canada was a belligerent through four of my six years there—we never thought of ourselves as anything but American. And so the Forty-ninth Parallel, though outwardly ignored, divided us. It exerted half-felt pressures upon affiliation and belief, custom and costume. Considering how much I saw of it and how many kinds of influence it brought to bear on me, it might have done me good to learn something of how it came there. I never did—not until later. I accepted it as I accepted Orion in the winter sky, as a phenomenon of the visible world, and I did not know that this line of iron posts was one outward evidence of the coming of history to the unhistoried Plains, one of the strings by which dead men and the unguessed past directed our lives.

In actual fact, the boundary was infinitely more potent in the lives of people like us than the natural divide of the Cypress Hills had ever been upon the tribes it kept apart. For the Forty-ninth Parallel was an agreement, a rule, a limitation, a fiction perhaps but a legal one, acknowledged on both sides; and the coming of law, even such limited law as this, was the beginning of civilization in what had been a lawless wilderness. Civilization is made up largely of limitations.