CBC’s The Border: Episode 1, “pockets of vulnerability”

The opening episode of CBC’s “The Border” is a good example of the moral complexity that its producers want to present the show’s characters grappling with. The complexity seems to be that not all Muslims are bad and not all Canadians are good. Instead, there are good Canadians like Kessler and bad ones like Mannering, good Muslims like Aram-al-Kir and Nizar Karim and bad Muslims like Tariq Haddad.


The opening episode of CBC’s “The Border” is a good example of the moral complexity that its producers want to present the show’s characters grappling with. The complexity seems to be that not all Muslims are bad and not all Canadians are good. Instead, there are good Canadians like Kessler and bad ones like Mannering, good Muslims like Aram-al-Kir and Nizar Karim and bad Muslims like Tariq Haddad.

Aram-al-Kir and Nizar Karim stand in for (the real) Maher Arar as victims of extraordinary rendition. They’re “good guys”, “good Muslims”, to be precise. And even though they get rendered and tortured for a little bit, justice is served because they end up back in Canada, reunited with their families.

Tariq Haddad is an embassy bomber who is responsible for the (fictional) bombing of the Canadian embassy in Ethiopia in 2003. He is part of a (fictional) group called the Jamaat-al-Takfir-al-Hijr. Through the good efforts of Kessler and his team, Haddad gets caught trying to bring his new gel-based explosives into Canada. And Karim gets caught too, and sent off to Syria. Haddad is just an evildoer, a bad Muslim, whose behavior needs no explanation. He’s just one of those people that is Muslim and bad and wants to blow things up.

Then there’s the bad Canadian, Mannering, who is from CSIS, contrasted with the good Canadian, Kessler, from immigration services. Kessler shows the importance of good Canadians. The two Canadians meet at Yonge and Dundas, where Mannering tells Kessler that his stomach is too delicate for the job. Kessler says yes, but if he quit bastards like Mannering would take the country.

This seems to be the simple message of the show. We need good Canadians to fight the bad Muslims, because bad Canadians will punish the good ones with the bad.

The last image of the show is surveillance footage of a Muslim high school student, a chemistry genius who is probably producing sophisticated explosives for bad Muslims, and doing so after being recruited by a (fictional) Wahhabi mosque in Toronto.

There is a chilling moment earlier in the movie when this high school student is being interrogated by the good Canadians. “I want a lawyer”, the kid says. “Under current laws I can deny you one for 48 hours,” the good Canadian replies. “You could be in Gitmo by then.” Even for good Canadians, the use of arbitrary power isn’t cause for moral dilemmas, even against children, if they’re (potentially) bad Muslims.

The world of “the Border” is not our world. It is more dangerous for Canadians, with Muslim terrorists targeting Canadian embassies. On the other hand, it seems like in the world of “the Border”, there are some balances against arbitrary power in the form of men like Kessler. In that fictional world, the ICS and CSIS struggle against each other on civil liberties. ICS agents with JTF2 backgrounds (Kessler) have civil libertarian lawyers for girlfriends. Toronto has Wahhabi mosques that use high school students to design high-technology explosives. The ICS can, and does, use the media to pressure the government to get an innocent man released from a torture prison in Syria.

Of course this is a fictional world and a fictional show. But like so much of this type of material, it wants it both ways. It is marketed as gritty realism, wrestling with contemporary problems and moral dilemmas. But it is full of fictional threats, fictional checks and balances, and fictional bad Muslims, and on the flip side, glamorizing of the banal, bureaucratic, soulless, and united function of the Canadian immigration system in terrorizing the migrant work force. So, despite its very watchable cast, this Canadian fantasy isn’t helping anyone understand the sordid reality of immigration and border agencies in the west.

The trailer for episode 2 suggests next week’s victims are the Mohawks, who have hardly been done right by the CBC until now.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.