When I was a teen we used to outsource our fun to another country.
I grew up not 15 miles from the Canada/US border. That’s not that big of a deal, I suppose, considering that most of Canada’s population lives no more than 250 miles from the US border. But for a country that tends to define itself by NOT being the United States of America, my little corner of the world was pretty heavily influenced by the US.
All the culture that you can buy
For most of the 80s and some of the 90s, we consumed a lot of US culture:
- For those of use without cable TV, we watched four television stations: two from Canada, two from the US (combination of public and private). For those of us with cable TV, over half of the channels came from the US.
- Radio: the main station(s) – two from Canada, three from the US (one of each was public)
- Movies – we had a movie theater in my town for many years but it closed by the time that I became a teen – from that point onward, we went to see movies “over across” in one of the border towns or bigger towns near the border.
- Shopping – with the difference in prices and the types of merchandise that were available locally, we used to do a lot of shopping in the US, too. Gasoline was significantly cheaper in the US. Plus, with free trade, duties (i.e. tariffs) vanished (sort of – read on…)
- Fireworks – our fireworks were a joke compared to the dynamic colors and sounds that were exploded during the 4th of July celebrations just across the border.
I don’t begrudge this at all. Without Maine Public Radio, I may never have discovered the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, at least not in its original radio format.
The shifting winds of commerce and culture due to shifting ratios
But things changed. Around the time that Canada’s currency dropped in value and the Canadian government began collecting new sales taxes on imported goods, local service industry began to build up in my town. Virtually all of it was a duplication of what was available across the border: eventually we got:
- a McDonalds and other fast food joints
- a Wal-Mart
- our own three screen movie theater.
Now, Generation Y and succeeding cohorts (including my own children) have come to expect that they’ll be able to entertain themselves within their own country.
It definitely had a negative effect on the US town where we used to go. It was never glamorous but it certainly lost some shine and vitality in some corners. Nonetheless, it continues on and most people seem to have a roof over their heads and food to eat, at the very least.
Culture is as the public spends
Why did we never have these things in my town before? I don’t really know. Maybe we just didn’t have the population density, although I think that the lower Canadian dollar discouraged people from spending their money in a different country when their buying power was weakened.
(Actually, that’s not entirely true. We had food and entertainment in my town, just not the same kind as you could get in the US. What we really got were new brands, but that’s a whole other story…)
We’ve lost some things, too, from the shift in the local economy: the Wal-Mart effect hasn’t been entirely beneficial to my town and, like most other communities, local businesses have had to adapt or die.
I attribute most of the economic growth one way or the other to the difference in currencies: a radical swing one way or another seems to benefit one side and weaken the other.
Why do we have borders, anyway?
Since Sept. 11, 2001 a number of things have emerged to make cross-border culture more difficult. The biggest is the need for a passport to cross between borders. In years past, going from one country to the other was much closer to the way it is that you move between European Union countries today, although you always had to stop and talk to someone when crossing between Canada and the US. And thus, people tend to stay on their side of the border a little more often than they used to.
But they still cross and they still shop on either side of the border if they really want to.
Is there a point in this little essay, especially in the Internet/wireless computing age where physical location is almost meaningless as long as you can be found on the Web?
Just this: people will try to get what they want wherever they can, whether it’s someone as banal as a Big Mac or as sophisticated as the finest diamonds. Borders serve certain political purposes but, as the Internet shows us, they are largely fictional, an agreement which is only as solid as the enforcement behind it and only impervious in inverse proportion to the will to cross those borders.
Maybe the creative, smart and ultimately rewarding thing to do would be to eliminate borders. Now wouldn’t that make a difference.
Image by scazon
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