Royden Loewen, Gerald Friesen. Immigrants in Prairie Cities: Ethnic Diversity in Twentieth-Century Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. viii + 257 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8020-9908-2; $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8020-9609-8.
Reviewed by David G. Burley
Published on H-TGS (November, 2011)
Commissioned by Alexander Freund
In their prize-winning study, Immigrants in Prairie Cities, Royden Loewen and Gerald Friesen contend that Canada's prairie cities experienced "a different version of the country’s experiment in cultural mixing" (p. 3). Relatively small, more recently settled, and inland, Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Calgary, unlike larger and older ports of entry, forced close contact and regular interaction on their residents, regardless of their origins. The intensity of that interaction and its challenge to convention forged "hybrid identities" among all ethnic groups (p. 4). Different from their cultures of origin because of their migration, but faithful to their heritage, and willing, even if of necessity, to adopt and adapt values of the host society without conforming completely, immigrant groups assumed new ethnic identities that were "crucial in establishing new homes" (p. 175). Similarly, their hosts' views of themselves and their country changed to accommodate and even to celebrate diversity.
The urban prairie version of cultural diversity, according to Loewen and Friesen, originated in "vibrant ethnic networks" and in "an imagined 'boundary zone' between the host society and the immigrant group" (pp. 4-5). Social and cultural "webs of significance," within which immigrant groups reinvented ethnic identities, and "boundary zones," within which host society and newcomers ultimately became accommodated to one another, developed and changed through three periods in the twentieth century: 1900 through the 1930s, the 1940s through the 1960s, and the last three decades of the twentieth century. For each period, Loewen's chapters draw on experiences from all of the region's urban centers to elaborate the functioning of ethnic webs, while Friesen's present Winnipeg as a case study in ethnic interaction in boundary zones. Both authors endeavor to take the view of immigrants themselves in responding to the host culture and in creating their own communities. Their approach explicitly takes exception to the more critical interpretation of Franca Iacovetta in Gatekeepers: Reshaping Immigrant Lives in Cold War Canada (2006), which, they claim, emphasizes the state’s efforts to impose "hegemonic middle class culture" on immigrants.
In the early twentieth century to the 1930s, waves of European immigrants, from Great Britain and the continent, "shocked established Canadians ... [who] were just beginning to feel comfortable with the governing institutions they had established in the prairie provinces" (p. 8). Rather than providing a synthesis of immigrant experience in that era, however, the authors are more concerned with establishing the contours of their concepts of ethnic webs and boundary zones. Being outsiders, immigrants constructed their own communities, held together by webs of interpersonal relationships formed within families and households, houses of worship, and ethnic organizations. Ethnic webs provided "a staging ground for integration" that nurtured and sustained members, shared economic resources and knowledge, passed on culture and values that gave meaning to life and to the often trying experience of migration, and at the same time debated the best ways to participate in the new society (p. 32). As central as ethnic webs were, they did not, indeed could not, isolate their members from the rest of society with whom daily interaction was inevitable. Across numerous boundary zones--most influentially in schools and in party politics--groups came into contact with one another as they negotiated the occasions and extent of their interaction. In that process, not only did immigrants acquire new identities, especially of class and neighborhood, that facilitated interaction, but established Canadians also acquired the knowledge of newcomers, often as individuals, that promoted acceptance. Boundary zones produced mutual accommodation.
Accommodation led to integration at mid-century. During this key period in the 1940s and 1950s, immigration came largely from the same sources as earlier, but in lower numbers. Now, however, not only did migrants seek economic improvement, but they were also motivated to escape war and its aftermath. Joining this migration from overseas, and much more numerous in Alberta and Saskatchewan cities especially, were dislocated prairie rural dwellers--immigrants and their children and grandchildren, along with British Canadians and Aboriginal people--for whom agriculture no longer held promise. The differing political values of these two streams--the radicalism formed in reaction to the exploitation and discrimination of an earlier era in Canada and the anti-communism that grew from Soviet repression suffered before immigration--meant that "conflict for these new immigrants lay not so much between host society and immigrant as within the ethnic group" (p. 74). The creative tension that internal differences sparked contributed to ever more hybridized identities. At the same time, in Winnipeg, as in other prairie cities, civic leaders, themselves often with immigrant heritages, became committed to the integration of newcomers and to the reduction of barriers among groups coming into contact in boundary zones. The forms and extent of integration might have varied among ethnic groups, although those variations resulted from a process common to all. Key to integration were the expectations of both migrants and hosts, which for each were based on past experiences. Thus, Jews, as an example, might have become more and more integrated--if not always wholeheartedly welcomed--into the political, professional, and social life of their community, while they protected and nurtured their separate cultural life. Outsiders might have taken offense at what they perceived as the continuing isolation of a group with a long history of self-exclusion, without appreciating the scars of past (and resilient) anti-Semitism.
The last three decades of the century brought a greatly different wave of newcomers to prairie cities. The arrival of immigrants from "the so-called Global South"--the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America--was significant less for their numbers, which were relatively lower than early century migrants, than for the "readiness" of mainstream society to integrate them despite their cultural difference and visibility (p. 8). Since this period marks the realization of the urban prairie's "different version ... of cultural mixing," it receives the authors' greatest attention, which is focused on four themes: the experiences of Calgary and Edmonton, the region's new metropolises; gender and family; racism and anti-racism in Winnipeg, the region’s earlier metropolis; and transnational links (p. 3).
In the new growth centers of the urban prairies, a dynamic resource-based economy benefited from new federal immigration regulations that attracted a more educated class of professional and technically skilled immigrants and their families. Their middle-class ambitions for themselves and their children, along with their suburban dreams, facilitated their integration. As a result, their ethnic webs served less to meet economic and other physical needs than to satisfy that "most sensitive" search for cultural well-being and community membership (p. 105). That sense of well-being found new expression in a more engaging and immediate transnationalism. Globalization and new technologies for movement and communication, along with the state's active encouragement of educational and cultural exchanges as means to promote economic relations, made it possible for immigrants to live their lives "across national borders." Rather than separation from the past, newcomers could sustain, and even nurture, "strong emotional ties to kinship networks and familiar cultural sites, continuing national imaginings and actual links with the homeland" as never before possible (p. 173).
As well, families became less of a refuge from the pressures and tensions of adaptation, but instead acted as mechanisms and places for adaptation. Cultural practices might be preserved and transmitted intergenerationally through ethnic organizations, but within the family the contributions of women to the family income and to negotiating the practices of the new society undermined older patriarchal relations and helped to define hybrid identities. That process, like the tendency of the second generation to embrace Canadian life more eagerly than their parents, was not always smooth and occasionally provoked abusive reaction, but hybridization advanced none the less.
The host society's reaction had two sides in this era. On the one hand, numerous voluntary organizations generously sponsored immigrants and refugees and worked to ease their integration; on the other hand, the bar for acceptance could be set quite high with limited tolerance for those slow to learn English and subtle expressions of racism persisted. The authors found some reason for optimism, however, in the multicultural and racial tolerance in Winnipeg. With a history of ethnic diversity more extensive and longer than other prairie cities, Winnipeg had since the 1920s developed a public culture that promoted contact among ethnic groups, celebrated differences, and achieved reasonable accommodation that left newcomers confident in their abilities to transcend racism. Tensions inevitably occurred, but they provoked concern rather than panic.
In sum, Loewen and Friesen have argued a "good news" history of prairie multiculturalism, characterized by the reasonable accommodation of both newcomers and host society over three or four generations. Their narrative is not as "whiggish" as it might seem at first glance, for they do acknowledge the conflicts within and among groups coming into contact and they do see dialectics at work. As well, they do offer, as any synthesis should, a framework based on ethnic webs and boundary zones for assessing the contributions of the existing literature, and from that it becomes apparent where future research should follow.
Before commenting more on their synthesis, I should disclose that for many years I was a colleague of Roy and Gerry and that they thank me in their preface. Their acknowledgment is more good manners than recognition of any contribution on my part. I should instead thank them for getting me, and others hopefully, to think somewhat differently about problems of immigration and ethnicity.
My first thought concerns the relationship between immigrants and ethnicity, which, as in their title, Loewen and Friesen have elided. They have explicitly treated ethnicity as a hybridized identity, a product of immigrant adjustment subject to continuing hybridization across generations. That process, I think, might also be considered one of temporal distancing from national origins, as much as cultural transmission: an older generation attempts to transfer the values and practices that it considers essential to a younger generation that accepts what it considers relevant to its own context, a process that continues into a third and fourth generation.
A few statistics reveal that distancing. (I do wish that the authors had more clearly presented statistical data. A few demographic details are scattered through the text, but there is not a single table to compare immigration, birthplace, and ethnic origins of prairie city dwellers over time.) For example, Winnipeg's foreign-born population declined from 56 percent in 1911, to 30 percent in 1951, and 17 percent in 1996. Similarly Calgary’s foreign-born population declined from 46 percent in 1911, to 25 percent in 1951, and 22 percent in 1996. That decline in the immigrant urban presence accompanied a growth in ethnic diversity, at least as indicated by the shrinking proportion of those claiming British heritage. In Winnipeg, the British declined from 62 percent of the population in 1911 and 51 percent in 1951 to just 10 percent in 1996. In Calgary, that decline was from 71 and 69 percent in 1911 and 1951 respectively to 14 percent in 1996. Paralleling that precipitous reduction was the remarkable new development of multiethnicity: in 1996, 55 percent of the Canadian-born, and almost 50 percent of all residents, in the five prairie cities reported multiple ethnic origins. The majority of "multiethnics" claimed British, French, or Canadian origins, as well as some additional origin. Their multiethnicity made prairie cities very different from Canada's largest immigrant city, Toronto, which in 1996 was home to 37 percent of all the country's foreign-born. But in Toronto only 30 percent of residents reported multiple ethnic origins.
What significance may one attach to late century multiethnicity? It has grown as immigrant populations have declined in proportion and as second and third generations have intermarried with other ethnic groups. Many prairie residents have thereby internalized Canadian multiculturalism: not only is the country multicultural, but so too are large numbers of individuals. Ethnicity can be inclusive and expansive as individuals choose to acknowledge (or not) their connections through their families to various places, cultures, and histories. Multiethnicity is also a symptom of a growing genealogical perspective that is transnational in extent, attaching individuals to antecedents around the globe. But it also demonstrates that ethnicity can be a matter of choice, perhaps an antimodernist, anti-global (and, yet, perhaps consumerist) retreat into several imagined locals.
A second issue for more thought concerns the authors' conceptualization of ethnic webs as mechanisms for adaptation. Recognizing that various immigrant groups possessed similar resources--an important observation--risks homogenizing the immigrant and ethnic experience; all acted alike. (For that matter, one might add that "established Canadians" also employed networks of families and households, houses of worship, and voluntary organizations in developing strategies for advancement and seizing opportunities.) Having identified the structures and their functions, now the task should be to explore comparatively the practice of ethnic webs, how they worked differently for different groups and how different individuals within a common group navigated their passage along the network.
Finally, the authors' commitment to view multiculturalism from the immigrant and ethnic perspective is a welcome counterpoise to the literature on the state and its immigration and multicultural policy. But the state participated in more boundary zones than partisan politics and it remained deeply entwined in ethnic webs, even if its efforts to impose "hegemonic middle class culture" were, as Loewen and Friesen maintain, often unnecessary for immigrants who aspired to membership in that culture. Still, more needs to be known about the frustrations and accommodations between the state and ethnic groups. Elements within ethnic communities--often divided ideologically and socially--welcomed, and even facilitated, the interference of the state if adversaries suffered and their own status advanced. Multicultural policy, for example, might have acknowledged the diversity among ethnic groups, but it also granted the authority of state recognition to this or that fragment within any group when it disbursed grants and made appointments.
Others no doubt will find even more inspiration in this excellent reflection on a regional expression of Canadian multiculturalism. And--even though it seems (wrongly) an afterthought to comment on the quality of writing at this point--they will enjoy reading academic prose at its best, spare yet elegant in articulating complexities.
. In 2010, the Canadian Historical Association awarded Loewen and Friesen its Clio Prize for Prairie History for Immigrants in Prairie Cities.
. Alan Artibise, Winnipeg: An Illustrated History (Toronto: James Lorimer, 1997), 203-204; Max Foran, Calgary: An Illustrated History (Toronto: James Lorimer, 1978), 177-178; and Navot K. Lamba, Marlene Mulder, and Lori Wilkinson, Immigrants and Ethnic Minorities on the Prairies: A Statistical Compendium (Edmonton: Prairie Centre of Excellence on Immigration and Integration, 2000), 9, 43-45. All statistics were extracted from the Canadian Census by the authors of these studies.
. Clifford Jansen and Lawrence Lam, "Immigrants in the Greater Toronto Area: A Sociodemographic Overview," in The World in a City, ed. Paul Anisef and Michael Lanphier (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 90-91.
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David G. Burley. Review of Loewen, Royden; Friesen, Gerald, Immigrants in Prairie Cities: Ethnic Diversity in Twentieth-Century Canada.
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