American versus Canadian Sensibilities: The Entrepreneurial Spirit On the Remote Frontier

[Editor’s Note: This article is based on notes from a talk by Dr. Judith Kleinfeld, author of Go For It!, to Publishers Marketing Association University in Chicago, June 2004. I don’t necessarily agree with her conclusions, and I think studying border towns in more mainstream locations may create very different results. But it’s certainly interesting.
-Shel Horowitz]

You exemplify what’s best about America: daring, dreaming, risk taking

Why are we so rich and powerful [as a nation]? It’s because of your frontier spirit.

It’s not just about our natural resources—Brazil has natural resources. We have geography, no enemies along our borders—but what about Argentina?

While writing the book, I found myself surrounded by Canadians. Canadians don’t think they’re like Americans at all. A Canadian anthropologist told me, if you want to understand the difference, go to these twin towns on the border: Hyder, Alaska and Stewart, British Columbia. So I called up the town authorities. I called the Canadian town, Stewart: How are you governed? He could answer no questions except in writing, and I should fax them and he’d respond in a week or two. Then I called Hyder. It had never incorporated as a municipality. It had a community organization. She was ready to tell me all, right on the phone, but I faxed my questions, as a good scientist.

The answers from Stewart were signed “government agent”: faceless bureaucracy in a town of 700 people. Hyder: Carolyn sent me back answers on stationery advertising two of her three businesses. And she held seven unpaid volunteer positions: Librarian, music teacher, art teacher. She said, “we went on vacatiion and I’m pleased to say I’m still on vacation. I’m doing just what I intended to do.”

I decided it would be worth the 1200 mile drive.

Toqueville made his mark exploring the different psychology of two places a stone’s throw away. Freedom versus slavery. Energetic Ohio, indolent Kentucky.
We drove for two days and then we made our first right turn. We had arrived at an opportune time: July 1 was Canada Day. We could watch each nation construct and display its nationality.

Canada Day is vanilla. We started with a Jaws of Life demonstration. Then we went on to a name the baby contest. And we ended at 5:30 with a community potluck.

Hyder’s 4th of July—talk about wild frontier spirit—we started with a pet parade. The winner was a little dog outfitted with duct tape to make an elephant’s trunk, with a guinea pig and lots of pearls around his neck. We proceeded to an ugliest vehicle contest. They had plenty of shiny trucks in their driveways, but for the parade, they had old things with moose antlers, duct tape repairs, and car siding.

Then a contest for a woman to shoot a bear, do her laundry, put on makeup—winner did it in three minutes, barefoot.

The previous year, they shot fireworks and burned down the community hall, with the town’s only fire truck inside. When it came to risk-taking, daring-do—they had gotten rid of the border station, they said it was a nuisance. They called Uncle Ted (Senator Ted Stevens). But when we crossed to the Canadian side there were teams of embarrassed government officials asking us about guns and marijuana, as if they hadn’t asked us an hour before.

In Canada, there were free bicycles to borrow. It had sidewalks. Streets all laid out in a nice grid, 1st, 2nd, 3rd. Hyder’s streets are every which way, and 23 businesses for 100 people. I could not employ a research assistant, because Hyder had full employment. They were going to bottle Alaska water and sell it in the lower 48. Stewart was a dying town, there were discrete for sale signs in the businesses. With all its flower boxes and bicycles, they needed painting, they were collapsing.

Hyder people were starting businesses based on a crazy idea and sweat equity. A lady had traded her snowmobile for an old bus. She gutted the bus and served fresh fish sandwiches. When I asked in Stewart for a good restaurant, they referred me to the schoolbus. She charged $15 for a sandwich and had a line of people waiting. I met an old man, he had just retired from a $2 million business—discount appliances and cigarettes. He could sell cigarette cartons for $25 versus $50 in Canada, and people in BC just poured in. It’s the frontier frame of mind.

Americans invented the notion of the wild frontier. I’ve looked in French, Italian, Chinese, Latin, even Inuit—frontier means a limit, a border, a boundary, border. In America, it means a great uncharted open possibility.