At just over 630 km, the 49th parallel separating Saskatchewan from North Dakota and Montana is one of the longest continuous boundary lines in the world. First established in an 1818 treaty between Great Britain and the United States, and stretching from the Lake of the Woods in the east to the Pacific Coast in the west, this particular segment of the international border was ignored by the buffalo and by the Native peoples, Métis, and Whites who hunted them. Settlement and economic development occurred for the most part elsewhere in North America: this part of the continent remained largely unsettled even after the boundary line was delineated in 1874 by a joint British and American commission. Yet the effects of this geopolitical creation were soon felt. The border cut across the hunting grounds of Native peoples and Métis, and erased their former territories. When the flow of peoples, goods and ideas from the United States into Canada increased after the building of the Soo Line and the completion of agricultural settlement in the American west, the boundary acquired greater significance as it became the focus for changing relations taking place within the Great Plains and prairies borderland region of which it was a part.
By the turn of the 20th century, American immigrants, both native-born and transplanted Europeans, had an impact on western Canadian settlement that was disproportionate to their numbers. Although Alberta was the most common destination for American migrants, a significant number settled in Saskatchewan, particularly in the southwestern part of the province, where ranching played a major role in the local economy. In 1916, American-born comprised 36%, 30% and 8% of the foreign-born populations of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba respectively. While settlers who came directly from Europe tended to immigrate in large groups and settle in blocs, Americans tended to travel alone or with immediate family, and were dealt with individually. As a result, their presence, while ubiquitous, was also less apparent.
Americans were valued for both their wealth and experience in farming, and were looked upon favourably by those who put stock in the fact that most Canadians and Americans shared the same Anglo-Celtic blood. Yet, while appreciating American capital and labour, many native-born Canadians in Saskatchewan were uneasy about certain aspects of American society and the threat of annexation. Many of these same people expressed some regret about the weakening of the British connection, in economic as well as social terms. However, the sheer number of Americans by the end of the first decade of the 20th century, their investment in agriculture and business, and the technological expertise they brought with them in relation to machinery and dry-land farming ensured that they would play a major role in developing the province.
While integration within this trans-national region occurred to some extent at the turn of the 20th century because of a common hinterland, divergence between Saskatchewan and its American neighbours was ensured by several factors: migration flows, diffusion of technology and ideas, evolution of capitalist relations across the border, east-west flow of trade and migration paralleling the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Great Northern Railroad, different settlement histories, different political cultures, different urban systems, and different core-periphery relations. Whatever economic or cultural linkages developed between peoples and places on both sides of “the line,” the simple fact remains that a very real boundary, a border that cannot be ignored, existed between them. Today, the 49th parallel continues to function as a matrix for Canadian culture for all Canadians, including Saskatchewanians, even in the face of new technologies, globalization, and “time-space compression” which challenge the traditional view of the border as a territorial symbol of sovereignty and separation.