What I thought was going to be simple comparison between the multicultural and melting pot immigrant society of Canada and the United States has turned into an overview of the social history of immigration in both countries. Not a topic to be covered in a few hundred words, it has become a two part effort, with part two to follow tomorrow.
In almost every history textbook I had from grade school on, the writers would at some point take great pride in pointing out the difference between Canada and the United States of America when it came to its treatment of immigrants. We were told the United States was a melting pot where all newcomers were quickly absorbed and assimilated into the quest for The American Dream. Canada, on the other hand, was a cultural mosaic, where all the cultures were distinct tiles, making up our big picture.
Aside from some confusion when I was younger, caused by an overactive imagination that had me visualizing the United States boiling immigrants in great big vats a la cannibals in B movies, I understood this was some vital cultural difference between the two countries. What it was I couldn’t exactly tell you: we had Italian Canadians living in neighbourhoods known as Little Italy, and America had Italian Americans living in neighbourhoods known as Little Italy. Not much of a difference, is there?
Still, every year it kept showing up in text book after text book: Canada is a multicultural mosaic that encourages people to retain their original cultural identity while the United States is an assimilating melting pot where everyone is encouraged to become part of a homogeneous mass. The one thing missing from those textbooks was any sort of explanation as to what the hell they were talking about.
Neither Canada nor the United States started out multicultural. (I’m talking about the socio-political entities that carry those names, not the geographical areas where thousands of thriving cultures existed before their new neighbours annihilated them.) It wasn’t until wave after wave of immigrants started washing up on our shores in the later part of the 1800s that the term could have even been considered accurate.
Certainly, Canada had its French population left over from the conquering of Quebec by the British; and in America, there were pockets of Creole and Spanish from thefts of land from Mexico and the purchase of Louisiana, respectively. Aside from that, though, both countries were lily white. (I’m not forgetting the slaves; I just don’t consider slavery a culture. African Americans have played a huge part in the development of popular culture, but that influence wasn’t exerted until the end of slavery and after the great waves of immigration.)
What I found especially odd about these great pronouncements in the textbooks was the fact it was never explained how and why each country developed their supposedly different outlooks towards immigrants. Was it even some great policy decision, or did it just end up happening because of circumstances? One explanation was that it was merely a phrase used to describe the overall effect of cramming so many people of different backgrounds into one area.
In the late 19th century, New York City and Chicago were already large population centres by anyone’s standards. It’s easy to see how somebody could use the term “melting pot” to describe the polyglot of peoples, languages, and cultures that were crammed into the poorer areas of those cities. The cities would have born a remarkable resemblance to cauldrons overflowing with people – melting pots where they all became just more, raw fodder to be fed into the maw of industry. Cultural distinctions would have been lost due to the simple fact of numbers.
There was also the fact that this was a time of growing labour unrest. Workers in all of the industries, from the coalfields out west to the garment factories of the east, began agitating for better working and living conditions. Attempting to discredit the labour movement, industry and government told America that the unrest was the work of foreign agitators intent on disrupting the status quo and bringing America to its knees. (Sound familiar?)
“Foreignness” became the mark of somebody who represented a potential threat to the country, and an unwillingness to assimilate was depicted as Un-American. Since the majority of the labour force in the big cities were all recent immigrants — who else was there desperate enough to work the horrendous hours demanded for the little money offered — it was easy to depict union organizers and leaders in that light.
Creating an atmosphere where anybody who held on to their cultural identity — or foreignness — was treated with suspicion, an alternative image to the bomb-toting anarchist, trouble-making, and union-organizing immigrant was needed. Industry needed the labour force immigrants represented, so they couldn’t smear them all with the tar of Un-American activity. They came up with the fully assimilated model, one that thought nothing of working long hours to provide a better life for his children.
The American Dream, that anybody could achieve success and happiness through hard work, was born out of that period: Sacrifice your life and health so your kids might be better off then you are. Working in tandem with the Salvation Army preaching that suffering will be rewarded in the hereafter, the image of the hardworking, assimilated immigrant, ideally suiting the needs of industry, was created.
As long as you played by those rules and weren’t some ungrateful foreigner who wanted special treatment, and after being allowed to come live in the Land Of The Free And The Home Of The Brave, you were considered a good American and properly assimilated. It was a modified version of America’s standard foreign policy precept: as long as you do what we want, you’re a good guy.
During this same period in history, when the Untied States was being flooded with immigrants at Ellis Island, Canada was only receiving a slow trickle of Eastern Europeans and immigrants from the British Isles. The country was in desperate need to populate it’s newly-formed Prairie Provinces to prevent them from being swallowed up by American expansion, and to pacify the native populations.
In the early days of nationhood, the country already had to suppress two native and Metis (mixed blood) uprisings led by Louis Riel, first in Saskatchewan and then Manitoba. The silver lining of those rebellions was they had hastened the building of the trans-continental railway. Riel and his followers had been able to win their fight in Saskatchewan because the government hadn’t been able to get troops out there fast enough to combat them.
Not willing to let that happen again, Canada’s first, and third, Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, made it his personal pledge that a railway would be built connecting the country. He won the first election because of that promise, lost the second because of the corruption involved in attempting to build it, and won the third when it became obvious he was the only one who was going to be able to force the thing to be built.
You can build a railway, but you can’t force people to ride on it. Canada began to actively recruit immigrants by sending representatives to countries with similar environments as the Western provinces. Forty acres, a mule, a bag of seed, and free transport (something along those lines anyway) were wealth beyond reckoning for landless peasants in the Ukraine.
They would travel by boat to Montreal, Quebec, be given the deed to their land, vouchers for their goods, and packed onto the first train heading west. A week later, they were standing on their homestead somewhere in the middle of Alberta, Saskatchewan, or Manitoba – a minimum of a hundred and one miles from the nearest rail line. (One of the deals that lost MacDonald the second election was giving the Canadian Pacific consortium one hundred miles of land on either side of the rail line as payment for building the railroad.)
Although the cities did gradually fill up with immigrants, the level of labour unrest in Canada never approached what it did in the U.S. due to the lack of industry. What did ferment couldn’t be easily blamed on immigrants (Yankee organizers on the other hand were a great scapegoat), as their numbers weren’t sufficient to be a threat. Policies that restricted immigration heavily in favour of people from the British Isles, and a desperate need for population growth would have made it counterproductive anyway.
Visible minorities were kept to a minimum because of draconian head tax laws that required Asians and Indians pay for each member of their family brought over so they never appeared to be a “problem.” Therefore, Canada never really experienced the influx of immigration that the United States did until after World War II.
Even then, it was often a matter of the government actively searching to fill a void in our labour market. For the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Toronto Subway System, and the rest of the construction boom of the 1950s, the country needed a fast influx of skilled labourers. Since Canada was doing the soliciting, and not the other way around, there was never going to be a question of demonizing the immigrant. With worker’s rights firmly entrenched, there wasn’t any reason to.
Through the 1960s it was easy to portray Canada as a happy, multicultural paradise without having to do anything but leave people alone. Slavery had been abolished in Canada long before it had in the United States, meaning we never had the civil rights battles here that divided America. We had safely stowed our Natives on reservations that kept them out of sight and mind, and bigotry was polite and British; it never showed on the surface because it wasn’t proper. All that would change in the 1970s because of events in the outside world.