Bordering on Identity: How English Canadian Television Differentiates American and Canadian Styles of Justice

Chapter 15 in Robson, Peter, and Jessica Silbey, eds. Law and justice on the small screen. Hart Publishing, 2012.

37 Pages Posted: 16 Sep 2015

Date Written: 2012


While the boundary between Canada and the United States has rhetorically been dubbed ‘the longest undefended border in the world’, Canadian narratives have vigorously sought to defend the border in symbolic terms. In 1972, Margaret Atwood suggested this nationalist project to withstand American cultural hegemony reflected the recurring theme of survival in Canadian fiction. Similarly, theorists of Canadian television have found that discerning Canadian identity, separate from that of its southern neighbor, is a frequent (and anxious) theme in its programming. This chapter examines this symbolic border-defending through a discursive analysis of two successful English Canadian television shows, Due South and The Border, with particular emphasis on the ways in which they differentiate Canadian and American styles of justice. Although the shows represent different genres, occupy different settings, and take place in different time periods, both articulate Canadian national pride in terms of law enforcement. Both plots devote a substantial amount of time dramatising the tension, and often the conflict, between Canadian and American approaches to justice. While the Canadian approach is usually vindicated in the storyline, both shows also offer the promise of productive collaboration between the nations.

In the 1990s show Due South, this fraught collaboration is comically portrayed when an upstanding Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) member teams up with a cynical American cop to solve crimes in Chicago. Debuting in 2008, The Border takes Toronto as its setting, and the outsider is Bianca LaGarda (Sofia Milos), a brash American agent sent by the United States Department of Homeland Security (Homeland Security) to represent its interests on Canadian soil. Both shows feature a fish-out-of-water, albeit two very different kinds of fish. The Canadian fish is hyper- bolically polite in the midst of American obnoxiousness, while the American fish is hyperbolically pugnacious in the midst of Canadian diplomacy. Other important distinguishing features of Canadian law enforcement officers in these programmes include their intelligence, temperance, tolerance, heroism, connection to nature, Aboriginal ties, and commitment to the rule of law. While these values and characteristics often aggrandise Canadian law enforcement characters, the shows also suggest that sometimes Canadians must rely on American strong-arm tactics to secure justice. Indeed, the last season of The Border finds the two national security agencies in sync as they battle inside corruption and cross-border criminality...

... As will become evident, the events of September 11th serve as a significant landmark that divides the imaginaries of the two shows under examination. I argue that a comparison of the televised shift from ‘self-othering’ a Canadian against an American backdrop in Due South, to ‘othering’ an American against a Canadian backdrop in The Border, reflects both the political climate of the day, and a strengthening sense of self in the Canadian imaginary. Amidst America’s ‘war on terror’, and in relation to international protest against American foreign policy, many episodes of The Border depict Canada as a mature and progressive nation that strikes a better balance between security and rights. No longer needing to just survive, Canadian policing identity appears robust and confident.

The Border shifts perspective in the last half of its run, however. A review of the latter episodes indicates that Canadian identity ceases to hinge on distinguishing Canadian and American law enforcement. Instead, the show shifts to emphasise bi-national compatibility between security officers on both sides of the border, allied against two other groups: terrorists and politicians. Terrorists, usually racialised and often Muslim, are portrayed as self-absorbed fanatics out to murder innocent Westerners. Interestingly, the security officers’ other adversaries are much closer to home. Canadian and American politicians and their aides are often portrayed as elitist, morally questionable and concerned solely with staying in power. These grandstanders and bureaucrats do not prioritise security and human rights, particularly for non-citizens and/or racialised people. The Border thus capitalises on the entertainment value of vilifying racialised and ethnicised people, while still portraying its law enforcement protagonists in contradistinction to racist politicians.

This examination of the parameters of Canadian identity in crime shows demonstrates that survival does not depend on being the fittest, but rather the most flexible. The Canadian approach to justice in the popular imagination reflects the ways Canadian national identity must be flexible enough to sometimes stand in opposition to American styles of justice, and sometimes in alliance when going up against Other maligned subjectivities.

Note: Downloadable document is (Excerpt from the Introduction) only.

Keywords: television, national identity, racialized othering, representation of law enforcement, border studies, American/Canadian differentiation

Suggested Citation

Khan, Ummni, Bordering on Identity: How English Canadian Television Differentiates American and Canadian Styles of Justice (2012). Chapter 15 in Robson, Peter, and Jessica Silbey, eds. Law and justice on the small screen. Hart Publishing, 2012., Available at SSRN:

Ummni Khan (Contact Author)

Carleton University ( email )

1125 colonel By Drive
Ontario K1S 5B6

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