It did not seem like a momentous occasion at the time, but a childhood boat trip sparked a decades-long passion for Dr. Sheila McManus.
Borders, or more specifically borderlands, have been the primary research field for the University of Lethbridge history professor and the subject of many books and articles they’ve authored.
McManus can trace that interest – “obsession” is a term that surfaces frequently in their conversations – to a boat trip to the most southern tip of Paahtómahksikimi/Waterton Lakes National Park and the Canada-U.S. border when they were young.
“I remember thinking, ‘if I’m in a different country, why doesn’t it look different?’ ” they recall. “A border asks us to assume that there is something different on the other side, that people are different, the places are different. It should be different, and it should look and feel different.”
Since then, McManus has been fascinated by the ways human beings draw those lines, the meanings we attach to them and the ways those in the borderlands – the spaces on either side of the border where a connection is maintained – resist them.
The concept of borders as fixed lines that separate pockets of sovereignty only dates back to the 17th century and the Treaty of Westphalia, they say, as Western Europe drew lines to wrap up its wars of religion and help justify overseas colonization. Previously, borders shifted, depending on the territory an entity could control or defend at a particular time.
Many contemporary borders are just invisible lines of latitude or longitude, marked by occasional crossings or pillars. McManus says borders take on greater significance when nationalism is added to the equation.
“The border marks off a chunk of space called ‘Canada,’ and within that there’s a group of people who are called ‘Canadians,’ who are assumed to share a bunch of characteristics. So, if you like those characteristics, you buy into the belief that borders must mean something; that they are doing real work to separate ‘us’ from Americans, for example,” says McManus.
Although borders may be more contentious issues in parts of the world experiencing conflict between opposing groups, too many Canadians are less critical of their borders, says McManus.
“Settler Canadians like the myth that the country has the ‘longest undefended border in the world.’ ”
The topic of borders has entered public awareness in North America to a greater degree in the past two decades. First came 9/11, then further events which restricted the movement of people and goods across the border, including COVID-19. Border walls to the south became a rallying cry under former U.S. President Donald Trump, and McManus took full notice of a recent suggestion by a Republican presidential candidate of the same to be constructed at its northern border.
The differences and similarities of those two borders were the topic of McManus’s latest book, Both Sides Now: Writing the Edges of the North American West. Published in 2022, the book examines the ways people on either side of those lines insist on maintaining connections when the borders keep trying to create divisions.
McManus, whose research also includes the history of women in the U.S. West and how race and gender enters into the borderlands, is currently concentrating on teaching-related projects on campus — it’s not a total departure from their border research.
“I think there’s a lot of invisible boundaries that set up teaching in a university as well,” says McManus, who earned a Distinguished Teaching Award from the University in 2018. “I’m equally interested in the ways we tried to divide and separate, and use those categories to structure post-secondary learning and teaching practices, as well.”
McManus’s work with the Lethbridge Border Studies research group, formed in 2018 along with fellow University professors Drs. Paul McKenzie-Jones and Julie Young, continues. The group’s focus is to bring together junior scholars, artists and activists with an interest in border studies to share their work and help bring a new, critical lens on borders globally. It has hosted three global border studies conferences to date, with the next scheduled for 2025, and has an anthology and special journal issue coming out next year.