When the elusive Al Capone was asked where in Canada he was getting his illegal whiskey, he answered, "I don't even know what street Canada is on." We share the same continent, we 300 million Americans and 30 million Canadians, but we don't know that much about each other, except that folks in the US go to the big cities up north for culture, and Canadians go to the American Southwest for warmth. The state of Montana shares the international border with the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. This is a stretch of about 600 miles, and is a territory that shares more than a line on a map. When you drive the Hi-Line, Montana Highway 2, you are only 40 to 50 miles from Canada at any time. I found, when driving to meetings in Sidney and Wolf Pont and Glasgow and Havre, that the long stretches of Big Sky and Big Wheat and Big Wheat Machinery were best accompanied by Canadian radio, CBC, on the AM dial out of Regina, Saskatchewan. Hearing Satchmo's jazz set introduced by a French Canadian DJ helps the driver focus on the endless two-lane horizon.
Saskatchewan's population of fewer than one million matches Montana's. Add the populations of Alberta and British Columbia, and Montanans are outnumbered along the swath of the 49th parallel. This was not always the case. During the 1700s and 1800s, probably as many Indians and Euro-Americans lived in Montana as lived in the three Canadian provinces. Lewis and Clark met several Canadian traders during their 1804-05 winter at the Mandan villages. Canadians of the North West Company, or Nor'Westers, were pushing into Montana on a few rivers, tracing the courses north into the Canadian Rockies. Meriwether and William were pushing west, and only west. A more able surveyor than either captain was getting busy in British Columbia one year after the Corps of Discovery returned to St. Louis. In 1807 David Thompson began his remarkable career as mapmaker and geographer, establishing trading posts or "houses" along the upper Columbia and Kootenai rivers, and a Montana post near today's Thompson Falls. Thompson remained in the border country for several years, helping the North West Company gain supremacy in the fur business. As the man who measured Canada, and wrote over 77 journals, in his 66 years as scientist and surveyor, Thompson this solo Canadian, did more than Lewis and Clark combined to create a general knowledge of the western half of the North American continent. (Granted, Lewis and Clark were only out West two years, but it begs the question - Why wasn't another Corps of Discovery immediately dispatched, and another after that, and so on, each with a different mission?)
The Montana-Canada border does not generate the excitement that the Arizona-Mexico border does, a region with which I have some familiarity. We have no migrant waves pouring in from Calgary or Kamloops or Saskatoon, wading across the Milk River with clothes bundles held high, eager to clean our motel rooms, work in our slaughterhouses, and landscape our yards. At least Mexicans bring lively food dishes and tasty menus with them. Canadians would only start a "House of Oatmeal" chain. From 1846 and the agreement on the 49th parallel, to well beyond 1867 when Canada reached nationhood, the international line that defines Montana's northern boundary was easily ignored by people on both sides. During the 1870s and 1880s, the Whoop-Up Trail was at full capacity, sending legal and illegal commerce north from Fort Benton, Montana. In those same decades, Metis families were southbound, staying over in their "hivernants "or winter villages, and returning north. The Whoop-Up Trail was full of whoop because it was the shameful whiskey route to Canadian native peoples and Euro-outlanders, until the Mounted Police whooped the whole thing back across the line. The cold-weather settlements of the Metis, famed for trading their stylish buffalo robes, dotted the map on both sides of the line. When the buffalo were no more, borderland Metis made the decision, sometimes with official help, of whether to be Canadians or Montanans.
Two other categories, hoboes and cattle ranching, helped blur the international line for several decades in the first half of the twentieth century.. Migrant workers were employed by industries involved in harvesting natural and domestic products that had no geopolitical allegiance. Timber, minerals, grain, and livestock were all labor-intensive productions, and required the seasonal presence of itinerants. These hoboes needed the free transportation of railways, many of which they helped build. Ranchers, if they lived in Alberta or in Miles City, performed, and perform, their duties in such a way as to be indistinguishable, from fencing to calving, from branding to shipping. There used to be that sameness along the Arizona-Mexican border, centered in the towns of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora. "Ambos Nogales," or "Both Nogales" the border city was called, for ranchers and ranch work and ranch lingo were interchangeable, and Mexican cattlemen and Arizona cattlemen bought each other rounds at the local taverna. If there is a bar on the northern border, where a Canadian cowboy might lift a whiskey ditch with a Montana cowboy, this apprentice Montanan would like to know about it.
Richard Sims is director of the Montana Historical Society.
(This column is indebted to the book "The Borderlands of the American and Canadian Wests: Essays on Regional History of the Forty-ninth Parallel," edited by Sterling Evans, University of Nebraska Press 2006)