Former WWU professor Don Alper discusses new book, border politics
Former Western Professor Donald Alper recently sat down with Western Today to discuss his new book, “Bridging the Longest Border: A History of Canadian-American Studies at Western Washington University.”
Alper, who worked at Western for 43 years, also served as the director of Western’s Center for Canadian–American Studies for 22 years and is well known internationally for his work in advancing Canadian studies in the United States. This publication comes as the center celebrates its 50th Anniversary.
Western Today: Why do you think Canada is taken for granted by so many Americans?
DA: "I often told my students that Americans view Canada as if it was Idaho or some other state. Most Americans have little appreciation of Canada as an independent country with its own, and quite different, approach to social problems, international issues and topics that get our attention but are not well understood. For example, their take on gun regulations, health policy and language laws. Canada is almost invisible in our schools. Students rarely go to Canada to study, probably because it is viewed as too similar to the U.S. I also think there’s something about distance since New Zealand and Australia are popular study abroad destinations. Apparently, closeness is seen as sameness. Or boring."
WT: Why is it important for Americans to know more about and understand our relationship with Canada?
"Canada is our largest trading partner. Canada’s geographical proximity means we are economically interdependent and share an environment (coastal waters, rivers, lakes, wilderness areas), and therefore must work together to solve problems. There is much to learn from Canada because our two countries have different approaches to common problems -- respecting Indigenous peoples’ rights, achieving cohesion within highly diverse populations, responding to global challenges such as climate, human rights and peacekeeping, and most recently dealing with a pandemic where the two countries levels of infection and compliance with public health orders are very different."
WT: What should be your readers' main takeaway when reading the book?
"Most students (and Americans generally) know very little about Canada. While this book is not a history lesson, it is the story of the journey to create a place for developing knowledge about an important country that is just a stone's throw away. This is a story of an unusual academic program at Western that has educated students, teachers and political leaders about the importance of Canada to our region, state and nation. Knowledge of a country so close and important to the U.S. is vital to the long-term health and prosperity of Canada-U.S. relations, and will be even more so in the future as common environmental, health, trade and social problems cry out for solutions.
From the beginning, the program’s vision has been that there needs to be a home base for studying Canada. Western, because of its geographical location, cross border ties and inventive faculty has provided this base for more than 50 years. It has not gone unnoticed. Canadian and American diplomats over the years have viewed Western as the “go to” place for accessing research, holding meetings and working out policy differences."
WT: How did your time as the director of Canadian-American Studies at Western influence your book?
"I was director for 22 years and before that associate director from almost the time the program began in 1971. Thus, the book is part memoir. Much of the story is derived from memory and personal notes. However, memory can only go so far— the need for documentation and interviews was important for filling gaps and adding other viewpoints about what was happening. One of the things I enjoyed most about researching the book was poking around in archival files."
WT: What's the most surprising thing you came across in your research for the book?
"As far back as the late 1960s and early 1970s, professors and community leaders were already concerned about “current” issues like oil tanker traffic in the Salish Sea and protecting border-spanning wilderness areas in the North Cascades. These early pioneers were advocates of a Canadian Studies academic program to educate students and develop a knowledge base to help political leaders solve these and other problems."
“Bridging the Longest Border: A History of Canadian-American Studies at Western Washington University" is available through booksellers as of Feb. 1; for more on Alper’s celebrated career at Western, click here.