Distinguishing between “European in Canada” and “Canadian” in History.

When do the resident of Canada cease to be “European” and become “Canadian”?
In the process of reviewing for comprehensive exams in January, one of the things that continually strikes me seeming fluidity of the terminology used to describe the residents of Canada in the period after Confederation. Specifically, it is the terminology in English Canada because it seems that regardless of whether pre or post confederation is discussed French-Canadians are French-Canadians – and that of course only really means Quebecers. Move outside the province of Quebec and the residents can be called any combination of things, many of which refer in some part to the country they or their ancestors immigrated to Canada from while simultaneously ‘othering’ another segment of the population. This is especially true in discussions of race and ethnicity relations where blanket labelling of groups by the racial constructs used to justify unequal treatment are perpetuated – and sometimes further entrenched – through the ways historians apply the terms to discuss the issues in question.
The book where this most recently struck me was Kay Anderson’s 1991 book Vancouver’s Chinatown: Racial Discourse in Canada, 1875 – 1980. Well into the twentieth century the ideas about race created by non-Chinese population of Vancouver and Canada are referred to as “European”, creating a sense that the spatial, social, economic, and cultural segregation of Chinese is informed first by ideas coming out of Europe rather than from how various levels of government and interest groups within Canadian society perceived and systematically ‘othered’ the Chinese. By the mid-twentieth-century, Anderson replaces ‘European’ with ‘western’ but only on rare occasions ‘Canadian’. This makes it seem as though there is nothing distinct about how immigrants from China and their descendants were treated in Canada while also asserting that a unique racial discourse occurred in Vancouver that changed in response to how Canadian society changed over the course of a century. The terminology used to establish the base ideas regarding construction of race and the argument about racial discourse in Canada leave question about to what extent are the ideas presented are simply imported from Europe or are they a distinctly Canadian application and renegotiation of ideas around ‘othering’ that can be called ‘European’ because that is the continent which the people in power originally came from?
While the place of race in Anderson’s work complicated how the terms ‘European’ and ‘Canadian’ are used to describe the people and ideas in question, the issue of what to call the people of non-Aboriginal descent living north of the 49th parallel arises throughout Canadian history. The two decades surrounding Confederation – or a particular province joining Confederation – are the most ambiguous in what to call residents of English Canada. Many of the Fathers of Confederation where immigrants or first generation Canadian and are referred to via a county in Europe with a hyphen to include the country they were working to make official. Even after 1867, the cultural, social and political majority are not called Canadian until well into the twentieth century. This practice has produced a plethora of studies of Britishness in Canada, and British-Canadian institutions and ideas, which are often contrasted with studies of minority European groups. Even in studies of how immigrant groups negotiate and maintain cultural distinctiveness once in Canada, like Frances Swyripa’s Wedded to the Cause and Roy Loewen’s Family, Church, Market, even when the group has for all intensive purposes integrated into Canadian society they are still referred to as a derivative of Europe.
The reluctance to drop the association with Europe within Canadian history is a politically correct and culturally sensitive way of recognizing and distinguishing between the many groups that contributed to the nation’s development. That the only historians who refer freely and unabashedly to residents of Canada simply as “Canadian” deal largely with the post-1945 period – the same period that historians point to as when Canada came of age as a country and stepped out of the shadow of Britain for the first time. There is a risk for the period before 1945 the continued view of Canadian society through a lens fractured by fragmenting the population based on where they came from rather than recognizing where they are will hinder seeing how in the early decades of the twentieth century the cultural mixing associated with the later decades was already underway.
As always this post has taken a turn that was not foreseen when I started to write. Hopefully in the next couple week I can fix that since part of the comp exam process is writing short, concise, logical and comprehensive responses to general questions.


About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
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