Swedes in Canada: Invisible Immigrants by Elinor Barr (review)
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Reviewed by
Elinor Barr. Swedes in Canada: Invisible Immigrants. University of Toronto Press. xviii, 558. $35.95

While the Scandinavian immigrant experience in North America has been widely studied, scholarly works have tended to focus on the United States. In this long-overdue survey of Swedish immigrants and their descendants and legacy in Canada, historian Elinor Barr aims to address the dearth of scholarly materials available in this area by disseminating the research she conducted as part of her ambitious, almost decade-long "Swedes in Canada" project. While book-length studies about the Norwegian and Icelandic experiences in Canada have been published, this is the first time the Swedish experience has been documented in such an extensive way, providing a valuable contribution to the field of Scandinavian Studies and Canadian immigration history.

Meticulously documented and indexed – the appendices, notes, and indexes comprise approximately half of this publication – Swedes in Canada examines the four waves of Swedish immigration to Canada. The push and pull factors associated with each wave of immigration are outlined, including the impact of the Depression and the World Wars. The effect of these economic forces and world events on the expression of Swedish ethnic identity in Canada are noted as well. Barr also highlights [End Page 190] areas standard in studies of immigrant groups, including settlement patterns, working life, religion, the press, ethnic organizations, education, literature, language, and gender roles and issues. Barr's examination of the notion of "low ethnic consciousness" among the Swedes in Canada, a phenomenon noted by a number of scholars, including Harald Runblom, Lars Ljungmark, and Carina Rönnqvist, is a thread that runs throughout her study as she examines assimilation and the loss and retention of "Swedishness." In her conclusion – "Emerging Visibility" – Barr challenges the accuracy of the "low ethnic consciousness" characterization of Swedes in contemporary Canadian society, arguing that "the activities and accomplishments of the fourth wave of immigrants, and descendants from previous waves, reflect a relatively high ethnic consciousness." She supports her argument by pointing to the numerous contributions of this ethnic group in the areas of economics, politics, and social life from their early days in Canada in the nineteenth century to contemporary times, and the picture Barr paints of Swedes in Canada is an extremely positive one.

A notable aspect of Barr's study is the way in which she supplements statistical and thematic trends and analyses with the personal stories and voices of immigrants and their descendants using letters, interviews, and other sources. She effectively contextualizes the immigrants' experiences by looking at larger immigration trends, pan-Scandinavian organizations and contacts, as well as the social situations in the sending countries – including Sweden, Finland, the Ukraine, and the United States. Barr also places her work within the context of numerous previous studies which mention Scandinavian and Swedish immigration to Canada, including the work of Canadian geographer William Wonders.

Barr clearly views her work as a resource and springboard for scholars to continue work in this area. She points out numerous areas that warrant scholarly study, and her overviews of the experiences of marginalized groups such as the Finland Swedes and Ukrainian Swedes, as well as her comments about class and gender, all provide platforms for further research. Translators will appreciate her mention of works of Swedish non-fiction and fiction that would benefit a broader audience if available in English. Barr's discussion of "Canadian Wilderness Adventures: A Literary Genre in Sweden" is engaging and is one example of the way she explores the impact of Swedish immigrant culture in Canada on Sweden. The various appendices, including those of Swedish place names in Canada, are useful reference tools. A short contribution by Charles Wilkins which looks at the impact of the Swedes on the National Hockey League will be of interest to sports historians as well as a wider audience. Indeed, Swedes in Canada is written in a highly readable style, and it is accessible to the general public. These are some additional ways in which [End Page 191] Swedes in Canada is a significant contribution in the area of North American immigration history in general, and the history of Swedish immigration in particular.

Ingrid...


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