Skip to main content

Reorienting the Map Around the Pacific: The Panama Canal and Shifting Spatial Imaginaries in Canada

Paula Hastings
University of Toronto Scarborough
Watson Hall 517

Workshop participants should have read and be prepared to discuss Dr. Hastings' paper. To obtain a copy, please email by Monday, March 6.

The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 revolutionized the world’s maritime shipping routes. It eliminated the long and turbulent journey around South America’s Cape Horn by connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans across the Isthmus of Panama. In linking Europe and North America’s east coast to Asia through the Americas, it consummated the centuries-old dream of European explorers, merchants, and adventurers to discover a passage to the “Far East.” But its significance went beyond maritime navigation and trade. In the United States, the Canal is interpreted as the climax of that country’s rise to world power, a potent symbol of empire-building, and an unprecedented feat of engineering. For decades, it was an international nexus at which adventurers, soldiers, engineers, a global labour force, and later – upon its completion – traders and tourists converged. For many settler Canadians, especially those who lived in or conducted trade from British Columbia, the Panama Canal signalled a new era in both world and Canadian histories. After 1914, much of the traffic in people and commodities moved around rather than through the continent, reordering regional, national, and global relationships in the process. This paper offers some preliminary observations on the Panama Canal’s impact on settler Canadians’ interactions with the world, their imaginings of regional and national space and, consequently, their efforts to define Canada’s future, both materially and imaginatively.

Paula Hastings is Associate Professor of History in the Department of Historical and Cultural Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough, and is a faculty member in the Tri-Campus Graduate History Program at the University of Toronto. Her fields of specialization are Canada, the British empire and the Caribbean during the 19th and 20th centuries, with an emphasis on the transnational dynamics of race, imperialism and colonialism. Recent publications include her first book, Dominion Over Palm and Pine: A History of Canadian Aspirations in the British Caribbean (MQUP, 2022), and “Distort, Deflect, Deny: Appraising European Colonialism at Empire’s End, 1956-1963,” Canadian Historical Review (June 2022). In addition to her book project on the Panama Canal, she is working on a manuscript, tentatively titled “'They Called it the White Man’s Burden’: Colonial Apologism and Deimperialization in Canada Since 1945,” that queries how settler Canadians have made sense of the colonial past and its legacies since the Second World War.

Department of History, Queen's University

49 Bader Lane, Watson Hall 212
Kingston ON K7L 3N6




Queen's University is situated on traditional Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe territory.