Our Home and Native Land

Message from the President

William L. Fox '75

My parents delighted in a Hudson Bay point blanket they received as a wedding gift. It was then a different day, still defined by practical, not decorative needs.

The blanket, albeit briefly, came with me to college, kept in a trunk each summer for the next fall at St. Lawrence. But its older significance in my memory was my first realization as a child that there was a faraway place, a vast amorphous land, called Canada. The silk label on the blanket’s corner indicated that its origin and purpose had something to do with European fur traders keeping warm. In a boy’s imagination, Canada was the most exotic geographical idea I ever held, even against the variety of colorful stamps collected from other continents. And that enchanted, undefined concept of Canada followed me north to St. Lawrence.

My second moment of consciousness about Canada was from the little clock radio set upon the desk in my Sykes Residence room. The strongest signal came directly from Ottawa, but a half dozen other stations were broadcasting in French, a surprising distinction in gathering the first impressions of St. Lawrence. The clear channel stations from big American cities or the frontier Midwest were usually available late at night, but Canadian radio was so much more alluring, as if hearing a calm pleasant word from the boreal forest itself. The voice sometimes sounded like the Tidewater accent I already knew. 
Out of curiosity about sports novelty, I followed on radio the Grey Cup competition in football, especially admiring the team names, such as the Argonauts, Tiger-Cats, Alouettes, and Rough Riders. 
The CBC radio news was always a fresh contrast, even with the reliable Walter Cronkite. And late at night, the network played the early music of Montreal’s own Oscar Peterson, the part of his jazz career rarely heard on my side of the border. 

Under a Canadian blanket and beneath their airwaves, unstopped by a checkpoint, no passport necessary, a St. Lawrence student has always had the added value of connecting with a second country. This natural association, this advantage of proximity, offers the subtle influence of thinking second thoughts in one’s lifelong habits of mind. Canada, in general, always politely, routinely adding “sorry” to a point of view, reminds us who happen to be American citizens that there are other ways to look at things.

The International Boundary Commission created a vital common history between the U.S. and Canada that reaches back to the end of the American Revolution. The famous 49th Parallel (symbolic of the entire border, not just that portion beginning at Lake of the Woods) is the longest divide between two countries in the world. American and British surveyors spent decades resolving what land and water belonged to each. They learned something valuable in their imprecision of relying mostly on axes and stars, metes and bounds, sight lines and desires to draw the line. Not all disputes could be remedied by simple dichotomy. When the opposing teams came up with a discrepancy in locating the line, often less than 40 feet apart, they set a precedent in international conduct by splitting the difference.

Whether overlapping lines or miscalculated gaps, the 49th Parallel is notable for how often the unreconciled measures were simply halved. And there, they would plant eight-foot iron rods buried in the ground four feet and set at one-mile intervals. In the more open “land oceans,” they marked the boundary every three miles with a cairn of stones. The severe conditions for both parties in the early 1870s remain legendary for the immense discomfort and danger suffered on both sides of the line. Horses, humans, and dog teams in the face of fall blizzards had small chance of surviving. And if they did, and could return for another season, the summer mosquitoes were as violent as invisible blades slicing the air.

The best lesson of this shared Canadian-American legacy is that “splitting the difference” ought to be possible and wise. And yet, our time, darkly divided as if difference is everything, has fallen away from this longer moral line, and instead, more often, takes itself to the non-negotiable linear extremes. It was not always the norm to stand ground by striding the antipodes and grabbing the pole. 

A St. Lawrence experience is multi-faceted and deeply self-determined, but it also must be an education about boundaries between people, about “splitting the difference.” One of the core principles of successful negotiation, one I first learned as a student involved in campus organizations, is that everyone must leave something on the table for the other side.

In one of her short stories, Alice Munro, Canadian author and Nobel laureate (whose principal biographer is St. Lawrence’s own Dana Professor of Canadian studies and English Emeritus Bob Thacker) presents a forceful character’s unforgettable question, “Can’t you tolerate people being different, why is this so important? If this isn’t important, nothing is.” If we do not emphasize this precedence for “splitting the difference” in a liberal arts setting, then where else can it become important? And, further, if not important, our grounds for hope will end on frozen turf or sinking quagmire for indignity to trespass. 

The border between the United States and Canada has been closed this year longer than any time since the War of 1812. I have felt acutely cut off from the “second country” I have come to admire and love, a place that has a reputation for reasonableness, for splitting the difference, and for trusting boundaries. Canada is diverse in people and history, much of it no less painful than my beloved American side in all its unconquered imperfections. But Canada’s very presence in our lives reminds me of how large differences were once handled. 

Several times in recent months, Lynn and I have enjoyed picnic lunches from the grassy American shore of the St. Lawrence River, looking across the forbidden waters to contemplate our neighbors in Brockville, Ontario. I readily admit to singing under my breath, “O Canada…we stand on guard for thee.” —WLF