THE UL­TI­MATE CANA­DIAN GE­OG­RA­PHY QUIZ The 49th par­al­lel marks 200 years as a ma­jor part of Canada’s border


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M Most in­ter­na­tional bor­ders ad­here to some sort of logic. They fol­low coast­lines or rivers, wa­ter­sheds or nat­u­ral bar­ri­ers. They make sense. Not so the 49th par­al­lel north. The border from the Lake of the Woods to the Rock­ies was set in Oc­to­ber 1818, and was later ex­tended all the way to the Pa­cific Coast. A Pro­crustean so­lu­tion that causes more prob­lems than it solves, it plays havoc with wa­ter reser­voirs and moun­tain routes along the way, which more nat­u­rally fall north and south. The border should zigzag wildly up and down like an er­ratic EKG. In­stead, it draws its ra­zor-like line stub­bornly to the sea. It de­fies com­mon sense, slic­ing off a fin­ger­tip of land in British Columbia: Point Roberts, Wash., U.S. ter­ri­tory that can only be ac­cessed via Canada. It dis­re­gards older po­lit­i­cal bound­aries as well: those of the First Na­tions that had their own trade routes, their own cul­tural and ter­ri­to­rial con­tours in place long be­fore any sur­vey­ors showed up. In­deed, not a sin­gle Indige­nous cul­ture group is wholly con­tained within Canada’s bor­ders. The 49th par­al­lel has since be­come syn­ony­mous with Canada’s border as a whole, as a short­hand for that larger po­lit­i­cal di­vide be­tween the Man­i­fest Des­tiny to the south and the mud­dled patch­work to the north. Be­tween melt­ing pot and mo­saic, as it were. But for the ma­jor­ity of Cana­di­ans, the 49th par­al­lel is a north­ern border. Most of our pop­u­la­tion lives well be­low it, would have to drive north to reach it. Only three pro­vin­cial cap­i­tals sit above it. (Vic­to­ria dan­gles be­low at the south­ern tip of Van­cou­ver Is­land by de­sign, not ac­ci­dent. It was a pre-emp­tive claim by the Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany, aimed at block­ing the Amer­i­cans from ex­tend­ing the line across the lower half of Van­cou­ver Is­land. Fort Vic­to­ria helped pin down the west­ern end of our border.) The Canada-u.s. border is of­ten her­alded as the long­est un­de­fended land border in the world. Per­haps. But not un­con­tested. Our border was born of threats and coun­terthreats, of sabre-rat­tling brinkman­ship and po­lit­i­cal chess moves. And any border, even an ar­bi­trary one, shapes us. We grow into our bor­ders, whether we like it or not. I first reached the 49th par­al­lel as a teenager, dur­ing a road trip with my fa­ther through Saskatchew­an, south of Este­van. We came to a large empti­ness marked by com­pet­ing flags: Cana­dian on one side, Amer­i­can on the other. With the con­fi­dence that comes with youth, I de­clared that I didn’t be­lieve in bor­ders. They “weren’t real.” My dad nod­ded, then ges­tured to the open land­scape. “Well, if you think it’s imag­i­nary, try walk­ing across that field, see what hap­pens.” I never took him up on his of­fer, be­cause I knew that no mat­ter how much I wanted to deny it, bor­ders are real. They mat­ter. So here’s to 200 years of de­fy­ing ge­og­ra­phy, to­pog­ra­phy, com­mon sense and Man­i­fest Des­tiny. Here’s to the 49th par­al­lel.

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