Book Review: The Red, White & Blue

Border towns have a unique world view rarely documented by historians. The city flag of Lethbridge, Alta. is red, white and blue. The Columbia in British Columbia is named for an American schooner. New York’s Buffalo News used to publish a monthly commentary of legislation passed by Parliament. Most residents of Emerson, Man. can name the best place to eat in Fargo, ND.

Author Brandon Dimmel documents this border culture and its cataclysmic change born from fears of terrorism more than a hundred years ago. Engaging The Line  is a smart, crisp account of the First World War’s impact on border life. The topic is not merely timely but compelling.

Most interesting in Dimmel’s account is the story of Windsor, Ont. and neighbouring Essex County, a place so Americanized newsboys used to hawk the Detroit Free Press on local street corners. Longtime residents still speak with a slight Michigan accent discernible to fellow Canadians.

Well into the 1880s, Detroit’s fire department took calls in Windsor. For years Windsorites thought nothing of crossing the river to work or take in a Tigers’ ballgame. “Thousands traveled across the line,” writes Dimmel; “Many would make this trip across the border only a few dozen times during their lives, whereas others would do so on a daily basis, having established homes for themselves on one side of the line and using the efficient ferry system of the Detroit River to access employment or entertainment across the boundary.”

Southwest Ontario, like Michigan, had a large ethnic German population. When war came in 1914, the Windsor Evening Post wrote a cautionary editorial contradicting the ballyhoo of Toronto Anglophiles: “This is a time for sober thought,” wrote the Evening Post. “Reflect on the horrible consequences of participating in a war that really does not concern us.”

Engaging The Line dates the end of this era from June 21, 1915 when German saboteurs bombed a garment factory in the Windsor suburb of Walkerville, home of the famous Hiram Walker distillery that produced Canadian Club. Other explosives were uncovered at the Windsor Armoury, a truck factory and the Invincible Machine Company plant.

“Windsorites were understandably shocked,” writes Dimmel. The border town “came to recognize U.S.-based German sympathizers as a legitimate threat to public safety.”

By 1917 the days of breezy border crossings were over. A cabinet order requiring that cross-border travelers obtain permits prompted a riot at the Windsor Customs office.

“The entire border crossing experience had changed dramatically since 1914, when immigration authorities limited their interrogations to visible and undesirable racial groups, criminals, prostitutes and people with obvious mental and physical illnesses,” writes Dimmel. “Now a fifth-generation Anglo-Saxon Windsor resident with a family living in Ypsilanti and job in downtown Detroit could expect the same kind of attention.”

Engaging The Line is likeable and meticulously researched, a warm account of an era we left behind.

By Holly Doan

Engaging the Line: How the Great War Shaped the Canada-U.S. Border, by Brandon R. Dimmel; University of British Columbia Press; 242 pages; ISBN 9780-77483-2755; $32.95

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