Sarah-Jane Mathieu. North of the Color Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870-1955. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. Illustrations. xiv + 280 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-3429-9; $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-7166-9.
Reviewed by Christopher Taylor (University of Western Ontario)
Published on H-Canada (October, 2011)
Commissioned by Stephanie Bangarth
Blacks Belonging: A Canadian Migration Paradox
Sarah-Jane Mathieu’s North of the Color Line explores the compelling relationship between the politics of race and the growth of a new nation, and how black Canadian immigrants navigated and existed within the institutionalized structures of race and legislated xenophobia. The Canadian state’s ideological construction of race, specifically the negative codification of blackness and its reification through the practice of Jim Crow, is the prevalent theme throughout this book. According to the author, the role of race, racism, and the exclusion of blacks in the Canadian state-building process are “crucial catalyst[s] for advancing debates about national identity, citizenship, empire, and law in Canada” (p. 7).
Mathieu contends that the inherently racist and separatist practice of Jim Crow must be situated as a truly Canadian phenomenon. The author writes, “this study provides an alternative arena for evaluating the evolution of Jim Crow thinking and practices in North America, particularly given that white Canadians insisted that they never traded in racism in the first place” (p. 7). Mathieu’s particular focus is on blacks employed in the Canadian railway system in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century. She explains how railway life “shaped and defined the black experience in Canada since the nineteenth century, with the railroads serving as an instrument for tremendous social and political advancement” (p. 5). While the African American railway porter is the racialized immigrant protagonist of the book, the author highlights the omnipresence of Jim Crow and exclusion of all black immigrants in Canadian society. Race dictated Canadian immigration policy, and most important the nation’s burgeoning national identity.
North of the Color Line infuses the crucial element of race in Canadian labor historiography. Highlighting the railway industry, Mathieu argues that Canadian companies viewed black workers as a “malleable class of workers softened by southern Jim Crow and colonial rule” (p. 63). Moreover, the author contends that race was an effective tool used by capitalists and industrialists in destabilizing their workforce and unions. She notes that “railway executives exploited racialized divisions in their workforce by pitting railroaders against each other and displacing white union men with illegally imported black labor” (p. 63). As such, this book adds to the breadth and diversity of Canadian labor historiography in general and shows how labor precipitated Canadian foreign relations with the Caribbean, more specifically. Mathieu does not present the issue of race and black immigration as an isolated historical period or thematic field in Canadian history; rather, she examines how their treatment fit within the broader Canadian narrative. Applying James W. St. G. Walker’s theoretical model of the five orientations to black Canadian history, the author situates blacks as survivors, or actors, and not merely as victims of the Canadian state and institutionalized racism.
By using Jim Crow as a theoretical organizing principle, Mathieu deconstructs the Canadian altruistic myth of benevolence and tolerance for African Americans and blacks of all ethnicities. The focus on Jim Crow would also be a good comparison for African American scholars or those studying African American history. How black Americans fought for civil rights while black Canadians strove for equal human rights is a key distinction on which Mathieu elucidates clearly in chapter 5. The author also summarizes black Canadian and American antagonisms, stating that “African Canadians consistently felt that, despite the existence of segregation, African Americans enjoyed freedoms unparalleled among people of African descent elsewhere” (p. 209).
Those familiar with black Canadian history, or other works by the author, may find the book a repetitive summary of the black experience in Canada at the turn of the twentieth century. However, the author does an excellent job synthesizing the information coherently and explicitly. The strength of the book lies in Mathieu’s comparative methodology and study of several different black ethnic experiences in Canada. Similar to Barrington Walker’s work on Jim Crow in Canada, her appropriation and application of the term forces readers familiar with segregation in the United States to think of Canada in a comparable context.
The author’s chronological narrative is suitable for all interested in Canadian history. Black Canadian immigrants are the intended focal point, but Mathieu’s book includes such themes as the aforementioned labor history, but also social, military, and political history. Each chapter examines specific periods in Canadian history, including labor strife following the First World War and Canadian nation building dominated by questions of race and belonging following the Second World War. Mathieu’s varied use and excellent analysis of newspapers, and specifically the black press in chapter 4 on post-WWII Canada, characterizes her use of black historical voices. Several visual aids and historical anecdotes, including photos and poster reproductions, enhance the author’s argument.
However, the author neglects to include a well-defined concluding section or chapter that reiterates and solidifies her arguments explicitly, which is common in traditional historical works. Overall the book is informative, well researched, and well written; however, without a conclusion, the reader’s last impression is one of incompleteness. Despite the glaring discrepancy, Mathieu’s North of the Color Line is an argumentative, but not contentious, work, and an excellent addition to North American black historiography and Canadian historiography as a whole. It is suitable for undergraduate or graduate students or simply those interested in Canadian history.
. James W. St. G. Walker, “Allegories and Orientations in African-Canadian Historiography: The Spirit of Africville,” Dalhousie Review 77, no. 2 (Summer 1997): 155-172.
. Barrington Walker, “Finding Jim Crow in Canada, 1789-1967,” in A History of Human Rights in Canada: Essential Issues, ed. Janet Miron (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2009), 81-96.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Christopher Taylor. Review of Mathieu, Sarah-Jane, North of the Color Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870-1955.
H-Canada, H-Net Reviews.
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