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  • From Great Wilderness to Seaway Towns: A Comparative History of Cornwall, Ontario and Massena, New York, 1784-2001
  • Miriam Wright
From Great Wilderness to Seaway Towns: A Comparative History of Cornwall, Ontario and Massena, New York, 1784-2001. Claire Puccia Parham. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2004. Pp. 181, $45.00

In recent years, scholars exploring the Canadian-American relationship and the people and cultures within border regions have turned to borderlands theory. Claire Parham uses this approach in her social and economic study of two border towns, Cornwall, ON, and Massena, NY. She argues that this region constitute a 'borderlands,' where the people developed similar political institutions, religious organizations, and social values that distinguished them from their respective nations. This borderlands society, she claims, stems from the American roots of the early settlers of both communities and the geographic isolation that separated these towns from mainstream society.

While more studies of Canadian-American border communities are welcome, the study has some problems that limit its contribution to the borderlands debate. In developing this thesis, she used Seymour Martin Lipset's 'social value theory,' which suggests that Canadian society is hierarchical, orderly, and economically cautious, whereas American society is democratic, classless, and entrepreneurial. Much of her analysis rests on the assertion that a history of support in Cornwall for democratic institutions, congregationally based religious organizations, and admiration for risk-taking entrepreneurs proved that the town had 'developed a unique society and culture that mirrored those of their Massena neighbours' (129). In finding what she sees as 'American' values in Cornwall, she challenges the applicability of Lipset's argument to that area. Structuring her argument in this way is problematic, however, because she never offers convincing reasons to uncritically accept the idea of easily identifiable 'Canadian' and 'American' values and politics. Consulting a broader range of the secondary literature on this [End Page 384] issue would have helped her gain a better understanding of the complexity of the Canadian-American relationship and the factors that shaped the historic development of these societies. In particular, looking at the literature on the origins and development of political culture, ideology, and state formation in Canada and the United States might have enabled her to discuss political values and institutions in these communities with more authority and depth.

Parham's argument that the Cornwall-Massena area constitutes a 'borderlands' is intriguing, but she does not discuss the direct economic, social, and cultural interactions between the two communities over time, making it difficult to prove. Again, the work would have benefited greatly from the insights of the existing borderlands literature on Canadian and American border regions. For example, she might have looked at the way that scholars describe the changing degree of interaction and porosity of border areas over the centuries and their connections to changes in imperial and national relationships. Parham's conception of a 'borderlands' is somewhat static and needs to be more firmly rooted in its historic context.

While the borderlands argument is weak, Parham's comparative study of Cornwall and Massena reveals some engaging questions about the social and economic impact of industrial development. The most original aspect of her work is the section on the St Lawrence Seaway and the way that this project transformed the towns as workers flowed into the area. The Seaway never fulfilled its promise of sustained economic growth for the region, and the communities experienced industrial decline in the later twentieth century. Unfortunately, because the book covers over two hundred years in 130 pages of text, no topic receives a thorough treatment. Nevertheless, this study could provide the basis for questions for further research. For example, did the influx of French-speaking people to Cornwall have the same kind of effect on community dynamics and identity as did the migration of workers from the American South and Italian-American families to Massena? Did differences in state structures and political culture on both sides of the border affect responses to industrial decline? As well, Parham's few references to the Mohawk people of Akwesasne, a reserve straddling the international border, suggest that a closer look at the historic relationships between the people...


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