- Sisters or Strangers?: Immigrant, Ethnic, and Racialized Women in Canadian History
In 1986, the Multicultural Historical Society of Ontario published a pioneering collection of essays that celebrated the lives of immigrant women in Canada. Imbued with the enthusiasm that characterized the nascent field of Canadian women's history, the contributors to Looking into My Sister's Eyes: An Exploration in Women's History sought to dispel ethnic stereotypes and uncover the life stories of immigrant women who had helped build families and communities.
It is with the central assumption of its award-winning predecessor that the present volume takes issue. As the editorial team of Marlene Epp, Franca Iacovetta, and Frances Swyripa holds, bonds of sisterhood did not [End Page 488] necessarily bridge chasms of race, ethnicity, and class. In charting two centuries of Canadian history, the seventeen contributions to this volume describe moments of unexpected solidarity between women, yet even these fleeting connections rarely unfolded on a plane of equality. On the whole, this collection tilts to the second half of its title by portraying women as 'strangers' – 'with each other, within the nation,' and, this too, within their own 'immigrant and ethnic communities.' These sentiments surface most readily in the oral history interviews that Gertrude Mianda conducted with French-speaking African immigrant women in Montreal and Toronto, but they do resonate in many of the fine studies assembled here. Yet if this volume's leitmotif is dark, it is essential reading nonetheless – for the sheer diversity of topics the authors tackle, the wide range of methodological approaches they employ, and the stories of defiance, subversion, and resistance they unearth.
Three themes figure prominently in this collection – stories of encounters, tales of defiance, and narratives of identity. In turning to Methodist missionaries in Upper Canada, Cecilia Morgan finds missionaries who insisted on the 'rituals of bourgeois domesticity' in Native communities not only for the benefit of the recently converted First Nations women and men, but, equally so, for the benefit of 'non-Natives who might read about these scenes of religious and civilizing transformation' and feel edified and validated in their own Christian identity. Anglo-Canadians 'developed their own identities and subjectivities' by mirroring these traits in the Native. Lisa Mar, in turn, describes how bonds of gender transcended racial lines when, in the early twentieth century, local Anglo-Celtic women in Lindsay, Ontario, befriended the eighteen-year-old Lin Tee, who had recently immigrated from China. In a richly textured case study, Mar recounts how the community's elite women, and later its men, became increasingly concerned over the abusive treatment that the mentally distressed Lin suffered at the hands of her husband. An ugly anti-Chinese riot ensued in January 1919 in which 'conflicting beliefs about gender played as large a role as race.' When Lin was committed to a mental asylum against her will, middle-class reformers had succeeded in their effort to 'help,' but an unbridled paternalism had triumphed too.
Although room for defiance and resistance was circumscribed, it did exist, as Julie Guard, Ester Reiter, and Midge Ayukawa demonstrate: in the political activism of the Housewives Consumer Association, for instance, whose members attended political meetings and street demonstrations while carrying babies on their arms, and who organized much-publicized children's protests against the rising price of chocolate bars – in itself a powerful symbol of the unjust pricing of consumer goods (Guard); in the Jewish children's camp Kinderland, established by the feisty members of the Jewish Women's Labour League, who combined lessons in socialism with fun in beautiful surroundings (Reiter); in the quiet determination of [End Page 489] Japanese pioneer women to preserve their ethnicity and language within their households (Ayukawa); and in the more personal decision, still, of Holocaust survivors in Canada 'to reestablish their murdered families' by having children of their own (Draper). Two contributions, finally, unravel narratives of gendered identity in times of war. In a moving essay, Marlene Epp explores the symbolic significance...