The Myth of the undefended Canada-U.S. border


In the year before World War I began, celebrations abounded along the Canada-United States border. It was 100 years since the end of the War of 1812, and orators at great banquets in both countries hailed the century of peace between Canada and the U.S. The “undefended border” between the two North American nations was an example to the world, they all proclaimed. If only Europeans could act like Americans and Canadians.

If only it had been true.

In fact, Americans and Canadians had been fighting ever since settlement began. English adventurers from the American colonies seized Quebec City in the 17th century and French soldiers and First Nations warriors had attacked English settlements repeatedly into the 18th century. In 1775, before the Declaration of Independence created the United States, the Continental Congress had sent an invading army to capture Montreal and to attempt to seize Quebec. The War of 1812, its end celebrated in 1914’s ceremonies, had closed in a bloody stalemate.

Then came the Rebellions of 1837-38 in the Canadas, followed by attacks on British Canada by “Patriots” from the United States who sought to “free” Canada. In 1839, there was the Aroostock War, a boundary dispute between Maine and New Brunswick that led both sides to mobilize troops before negotiations cooled everyone down. During the U.S. Civil War, fear of an American attack that might bind up the wounds of war with a victorious drive northwards led the British North American provinces to join together in the Dominion of Canada. The British colonies knew they had no chance separately; together they just might survive against the bigger, richer U.S. The British and their North Americans colonies also had seemed more sympathetic to the South than to Abraham Lincoln’s Union, and when Confederate army raiders struck from Canada across the U.S. border, looted Vermont banks, and fled back to Montreal, the courts turned them loose – with their stolen money.

Despite such provocations, the U.S. did not attack, but Irish-American Fenians, men who hoped to liberate Ireland from British rule by attacking Canada, did launch repeated attacks from United States territory against Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick and Manitoba, attacks that continued from 1866 to 1871. Most of the raids were more comic opera than war, but at Ridgeway in Upper Canada in June, 1866, the skirmish was bloody – and the Fenians defeated a Canadian-British force before escaping back across the border.

The Fenian raids were the last armed confrontation on the border, it’s true. But Canada, as a British possession, could never consider itself safe. Every time the United States and Great Britain engaged in a diplomatic confrontation, Canadians shivered in their boots. What if the dispute turned to war? This was not an unrealistic concern. In 1895, the border between Venezuela and British Guiana, a South American boundary dispute a long way from Washington, London and Ottawa, almost started a conflict between Britain and the United States. For a brief period, Canada began a small rearmament program, before the peaceful settlement of the border question let Ottawa sink back into its normal neglect of defence.

The point is that peace, while desired by almost everyone, was always threatened. There were hotheads in the U.S. Congress and in some newspaper offices who believed that all of North America should be American. It was the United States’ “manifest destiny,” they said. It wasn’t that Americans disliked Canadians; it was that Canada was a British colony, and Britain, the nation against which the Americans had revolted, offended by its mere presence. For their part, those Canadians who did not emigrate to the United States – tens of thousands did every year, seeking greater opportunities – resented the constant threats from the south and disliked what they saw as bragging, boasting Yankees who seemed to believe that everything they did was right and proper.

And yet, during World War I when Canada found itself in serious economic difficulty, it was forced to ask Washington, just into the war, for assistance in the summer of 1917.

What is interesting is the way Canada approached the U.S. The finance minister wrote to his American counterpart to say: “We have in your time and mine always been good neighbours. Occasionally a verbal brickbat has been thrown across the fence,” Sir Thomas White wrote. “But we have always sympathized with each other … In our attitude towards constitutional liberty and all social problems our people are very much alike and understand each other better I think than any other two peoples in the world today.”

We are all North Americans together – that was the message, and White got the help Canada needed.

It was true in 1917 and it is today. But Canadians should not pretend that it was always so. The undefended border and the century of peace after the War of 1812 were myths, not fact.

J.L. Granatstein is editor of The Canadian Experience and writes on Canada-U.S. relations, foreign and defence policy, and political history.

Next Installment: Even ‘Best Friends’ Have Problems

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services/Lingua Ads partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at The Canadian Experience is copyright © 2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.

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