North-West of Where?
Issue #40, October 1998
On a rainy Vancouver morning — that's British Columbia not Washington — I sit here listening to "North by North-West," the local Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) weekend morning show. I am puzzled by its title. Before I emigrated from the U.S., I used to live in the "Pacific Northwest," specifically Portland, Oregon. My puzzlement is therefore at once personal and national.
Why am I so irritated by references to Vancouver as "the North-West," whether in store names, advertisements, or everyday speech?
While Americans apologize for calling southern B.C. 'the northwest,' recognizing that it is a problematic and inaccurate label, Vancouverites often invoke this identity with little reservation. At this juncture in my life, it's particularly important that the distinction between southern B.C. and the American Pacific Northwest be upheld. This might seem like an endorsement of some type of Canadian nationalism. And on some days, on some issues, I have no problem being a Canadian nationalist. In this case I actually have much stronger feelings, stemming from the border's affect on the traffic flow of people, an eminently political issue.
As a preface to my reflections on the long-term traffic routes that I have been involved in, I want to meditate on the question of how we define 'space' and 'community.'
Vancouver is 'west' of most of Canada and North America. but what is it north of? It is north of the north-west corner of the U.S. However, it is on the southern border of Canada and, despite the CBC web page that claims that it is in the "northwest corner of the continent," it is just about in the middle of the western coast of North America. In fact, it is the southern metropolitian, industrial, commercial and cultural 'center' of British Columbia.
Not unlike the U.S. West Coast, British Columbians often distinguish themselves from the 'West.' They do this to avoid being merged with Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan. B.C., like California, Oregon and Washington, is west of 'the West.' And I hear an echo of eastern Oregonians' complaints when people from the 'interior' of B.C. object to classifying B.C. as 'coastal.' Perhaps Vancouver's identity as 'northwestern' is some counterpart to Quebec's assertion of its autonomy from 'the rest' of Canada. Unfortunately, the only major population center in Canada that Vancouver is north and west of is Toronto.
My unease with Vancouver being labeled 'northwest' may be becuase my personal migration from the U.S. to Canada, and then within Canada from Toronto to Vancouver, seems to be a continual movement towards the periphery. I now live about 1000 miles (that's about 1700 kilometers) from where I lived before immigrating to Toronto. schizophrenia is liable to occur when this straight line to the perimeter leads me to the same place, the 'northwest.' Yet, considering national boundaries, I have moved to more or less the same place.
What is this national boundary that so shapes the character of my peregrinations? Of course, national boundaries are eminently concerned with people traffic. Their existance becomes frighteningly evident when examining immigration policies and the necessary labor performed by 'illegal' aliens at very low wages.
I'm fortunate enough to have dual U.S./Canadian citizenship, but this hardly dissolves the importance of the border for me. I grew up in the U.S. where the national boundary that defines Canada, if not the whole of the land within that boundary. seems almost invisible. For instance, most U.S. weather reports show a map that ends at the US's northern border, as if it were a coast. I remember growing up in Colorado hearing weather reports explaining interminably that there was a cold air mass coming from "Canada" with an arrow coming from the nowhere land of the north — which was actually Alberta, rather than, say, Ontario, Quebec or Newfoundland. Canadian weather maps, on the other hand, usually show the U.S./Canadian border with a line the same width as the borders between the provinces. And weather is recognized, as a phenomenon not bounded by the nation-state. Likewise, the common joke about the Globe and Mail being Toronto's National Newspaper, just signifies the usual feelings associated with a city that functions a the financial and commercial capital of Canada. Of course, the U.S./Canada border has a special status within Canada in many ways. Several times I've heard racist white people start complaining about 'those immigrants.' When I responded, "I'm an immigrant," they quickly switch to the 'you know what I mean' form of racist discourse. Thus, even in Toronto, where U.S. citizens are very common, 'immigrant' denotes not people who have immigrated across a national border, but people who are a supposed burden to the system.
Nevertheless, the erasure of the U.S./Canadian border whether by the weather map or by labeling Vancouver the 'northwest' is incomplete, if not entirely ineffectual. Vancouver's economy, government and culture are defined by its relation first to British Columbia. True, as the long history of drug traffic attests, Vancouver is a port city. As such it is a portal between B.C. and Asia, and thus its ability to engage in ongoing economic competition with San Francisco is contingent upon it being tied to the Canadian southwest, not the North American northwest.
My immediate concern with this issue stems from a much more personal juncture. Almost no one travels between Portland and Toronto. This should have been obvious to me in the circuitous route that I flew to Toronto in 1991 when I moved from Portland, a flight that took me through Seattle where I got the tail end of a Cathay Pacific flight. It was driven home in the intervening seven years in Toronto — during which time I only saw two of my friends from Portland — when one of my students in Toronto laughed out loud at the very idea that I came from Portland. To him it seemed preposterous. On the other hand, my partner, a native of Vancouver, seemed to have gone to high school with every other band that came through Toronto, and regularly saw people who had moved from Vancouver or were just passing through. The Toronto-Vancouver relationship may be one of love-hate, core-periphery, or heartland-bush, but, whatever the relation, the tie is strong. People are continually moving back and forth or at the very least visiting. Thus, for idiosyncratic emotional reasons, I want the border to separate the U.S. Northwest from Vancouver. I want to have more contact with my former life in Toronto and I don't wish to experience the same dislocation in my most recent peregrination.
This is only the personal side of thinking about human traffic and national borders and it feels trite when I think about the trials and tribulations of so many others who are separated from family and friends by national borders, who spend time and energy jumping through hoops to get landed immigrant status or citizenship, or who risk their lives trying to get across borders. However trivial my considerations on the border, these traffic patterns affect many people and political categories of nationhood.
There has been much talk of late about the strength of the nation-state especially vis-a-vis multinational corporations, free trade, and the global economy. I don't doubt that the role of the nation-state, and thus national boundaries and how they function, is going through profound changes. However, this global economy is still mapped out on geography defined by borders. In my experience, people do not only move across borders, but routine human traffic flows within borders. What I experience as my community has as much to do with national geography as it does with actual physical proximity — this is why I have a visceral reaction against labeling Vancouver the 'North-West.' Where I would normally point out that labels are rarel directly referential, I find myself musing about what Vancouver is literally north-west of, which underlies whatever use I have for the political mobilization of 'nationalism,' or, on the other hand, for my criticisms of other manifestations of 'nationalism.'
Peter Ives has recently moved to Vancouver where he will soon be teaching at Simon Fraser University. He has just completed his Ph.D. in Social and Political Thought at York University. He has also written articles for Rethinking Marxism and Left History. He can be reached at email@example.com.