Counter-Archive as Methodology

Activating Oral Histories of the Contested Canada-US Border


  • Johanna Reynolds Centre for Refugee Studies, York University
  • Grace Wu Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, Concordia University
  • Julie Young Department of Geography and Environment, University of Lethbridge


Canada-US border, oral histories, counter-archive, refuge


Remembering Refuge: Between Sanctuary and Solidarity is a counter-archive based on oral history interviews with people who crossed the Canada-US border to seek refuge and advocacy groups working at this border in two moments of crisis: the 1980s Central American crisis and the 2017-19 crisis at Roxham Road. This paper foregrounds counter-archiving as a methodology, building from the oral histories to illustrate how borders and bordering practices are navigated and contested and how these lived experiences push back at state-directed logics and narratives of migration. By drawing connections across past and present struggles over mobilities and borders, we offer a critical genealogy of refuge around the Canada-US border. The oral histories collectively and individually contest state-led narratives of migration as a ‘crisis,’ the need for borders to be further securitized, and specifically of the Canadian state’s generous humanitarianism towards a select few. We introduce the methodological choices, contexts, and limitations of the project’s research design, and present two themes that emerged from the oral histories: the contested element of ‘choice’ in migration movements and the important roles played by resistance and refusal in the working out of borders. Finally, we emphasize that relationships between borders are crucial to understanding the histories of asylum around this border, and the political shift activated by the counter-archive of centering borders as lived, experienced, contested or refused.

Author Biographies

Johanna Reynolds, Centre for Refugee Studies, York University

Johanna Reynolds is a researcher and project manager at York University’s Centre for Refugee

Studies in Toronto and an affiliate of the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University.

Grace Wu, Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, Concordia University

Grace Wu is an interdisciplinary researcher and writer who works at the intersections of storytelling, technology, and public engagement. She has over a decade of experience in refugee advocacy, human rights, and technology, including at Amnesty International and the Canadian Council for Refugees. She has contributed to columns in the Canadian and Caribbean press about migration policies in the Americas and is co-author of a chapter in, The Future of US Empire in The Americas: The Trump Administration and Beyond (Routledge, 2020). Grace holds a Master of Arts in Immigration and Settlement Studies from Ryerson University.

Julie Young, Department of Geography and Environment, University of Lethbridge

Dr. Julie E.E. Young is Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair (Tier 2) in Critical Border Studies in the Department of Geography and Environment at the University of Lethbridge. Much of her research to date has focused on how migrants and advocates in Canada-US and Mexico-Guatemala border communities interact with and challenge those borders. She is co-editor, with Dr. Susan McGrath, of the open-access book, Mobilizing Global Knowledge: Refugee Research in an Age of Displacement (University of Calgary Press, 2019).


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How to Cite

Reynolds, J., Wu, G., & Young, J. (2023). Counter-Archive as Methodology: Activating Oral Histories of the Contested Canada-US Border. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 22(4), 1197–1214. Retrieved from



Themed Section: Departures, Arrivals, and Encounters: Feminist Understandings of