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  • The Line Which Separates: Race, Gender, and the Making of the Alberta-Montana Borderlands by Sheila McManus
  • Michel Hogue
The Line Which Separates: Race, Gender, and the Making of the Alberta-Montana Borderlands. By Sheila McManus. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Sheila McManus argues that the forty-ninth parallel was a key site in the attempts by the Canadian and United States governments to create separate, trans-continental nations in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Their efforts to construct the international boundary as a clear and unequivocal dividing line across the Great Plains of North America are the focus of this study. McManus details how government officials from both countries relied on various regulatory tools to incorporate the trans-border region and its peoples into two nation-states and, in the process, create and reinforce the division between the Canadian and U.S. Wests. In their surveys, maps, and reports, officials sought to enumerate the region’s resources and imagine it as an agricultural paradise populated by white, Euro-American farmers that was vital to the future of each nation. Their policies attempted to make this vision a reality. In their efforts to survey the land, administer aboriginal peoples, and promote the re-settlement of immigrants, officials employed legislative tools to incorporate the region into two separate nations as well as normative notions of race, gender, and sexuality to define political and social boundaries among the region’s diverse peoples.

According to McManus, the results were mixed. She points to the persistent tension between the goals of federal authorities’ intent on dividing and marking the region and its inhabitants and the local conditions that frequently undermined federal efforts. The unsuitability of the region’s climate and soil for agricultural production, the resistance of aboriginal peoples to federal “civilizing” agendas, and the diversity of polyglot borderland populations challenged federal visions of what the region should be. Indeed, McManus argues that the forty-ninth parallel, as well as the other physical and social boundaries that were supposed to mark the region’s incorporation into separate and distinct nations, required constant reinforcement and revision. By the 1890s, both Canada and the U.S. had managed to solidify their claims to the region and to replicate metropolitan racial and gender hierarchies there, but national efforts to establish the border as a precise demarcation had failed. Instead, local relationships of social and economic exchange bound settler communities across the border and created strikingly similar communities on either side.

McManus presents her case in three pairs of chapters that chart the overlapping processes through which Canada and the United States laid claim to the region and sought to remold it according the desires of officials in Ottawa and Washington. At the center of McManus’s analysis are the categories of race, gender, and nation which, she argues, structured these efforts. Beyond marking the political boundaries between the U.S. and Canada, officials relied on other lines distinguishing “Indians” from “whites,” Indian land from white land, and women from men to make these national demarcations meaningful. For example, McManus highlights how federal officials on both sides sought to regulate relations between white men and Blackfoot women in order to impose familiar race and gender norms. Canadian officials turned to legislation that stripped Blackfoot women who married white men of their status as “Indians” and forced them off reserves. Their American counterparts, meanwhile, lacked similar statutory powers but nonetheless sought to limit these interactions which they feared might allow the men to gain economic access to the reservations and, as important, cause them abdicate their whiteness. If categories of race and gender were essential ways of marking difference among borderland populations, McManus argues that they often proved unreliable as markers of national difference. Among white settler communities, similar racial and gender ideologies united, rather than divided, Canadian and American communities. Consequently, federal attempts to accentuate the superiority of “their” West over that of their neighbor’s foundered upon the similarities that united the trans-border region.

This work infuses the study of the North American West with theoretical insights drawn from other colonial contexts and thus challenges those Canadian and U...

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