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Orienting Canada: Race, Empire and the Transpacific by John Price (review)

From: Canadian Ethnic Studies
Volume 45, Number 3, 2013
pp. 157-159 | 10.1353/ces.2013.0048

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In 1951, speaking to an audience in Vancouver, Lester Pearson said: ‘This is a part of Canada which is most interested in Pacific problems, but there should be no part of Canada that should not be interested in the Pacific” (253). Pearson’s remark underlines the first of the two main premises of Price’s study, that Canada’s diplomatic history has overlooked and marginalized Asia. The second is that through understanding the intersection of race and empire, Canada can be situated in a transpacific context. Price’s study challenges the dominant narratives and methodology of Canada’s diplomatic history: Price disagrees with the portrayal of Canada moving from isolationism to internationalism; he disputes Eurocentric historical accounts; he integrates race and racism into foreign policy decision-making; and he grounds his study in stories of ‘average’ men and women, illuminating “the often unspoken relationship between race and empire” (2).

Orienting Canada covers approximately fifty years, from the 1907 race riots in Vancouver to the Geneva negotiations on the war in Indochina in the mid-1950s. The book has two main parts with 1945 as the dividing line. China, Japan, and Korea are the main Asian countries discussed. The British Empire dominates the first half. The United States replaces Britain as the imperial centre in the second half and communism is the touchstone against which the links between race and empire are traced. Throughout the book, Price weaves together three narrative strands: personal narratives that focus on the experiences of individuals and families; Canadian involvement; and a global/transnational account of events like the Second World War, the Cold War, and the onset of decolonization.

The first half of the book explores how Chinese and Japanese immigrants to Canada responded to conflicts between Japan and China, focusing on the period from the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 until the end of the war with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the postwar Tokyo War Tribunals. The interactions of Japanese and Chinese immigrants—some of whom were Canadian citizens—with social groups, political movements, as well as governments, reveal how the line separating the domestic and international spheres was porous and developments at home and abroad influenced conceptions of citizenship and national identity. Price also highlights how racial ideas influenced foreign policy. He defines race in terms of social relations moderated by power (5). But the overall treatment of race is not complete. The history of how racial constructions took shape and evolved, as well as the core ideas that sustained racialized outlooks, remain somewhat opaque. It is also problematic that ideas of race flow in one direction. Price contends that Asians acted as foils to a white supremacist Canadian identity (317) but does not fully explain what whiteness meant. His chronology of race in Canada is also hard to follow. On the one hand, Price suggests that by 1930, racist ideas were quite different from those of 1907 (46) and racism was under siege in Canada by the end of the Second World War (144). On the other hand, he claims that Canada had “become even more of a ‘white man’s country’” (318) and “Racism was an everyday occurrence” (146) after 1945. These seemingly contrary claims could perhaps be more easily reconciled had Price distinguished more explicitly between individual and institutionalised racism.

The second half of the book is less well realized. Price portrays the US as an imperial power that remilitarized the Pacific: this characterization is easy enough to accept. But the space devoted to denouncing American imperialism detracts from explanations about how the American empire and ideas of race interacted in a Cold War world. Furthermore, the balance between the global and Canadian narratives tips heavily toward global explanations of the Cold War, the Korean War, and the conclusion of a peace treaty with Japan, crowding out the Canadian story. As a result, Canada’s position in Asia is explained through guilt by association: because Canada followed American policies, and because American policies were imperialist and racialized, Canadian policies must also have been racialized. The purpose of the analysis is further diluted because Price concentrates on uncovering injustices (of which there were many horrific instances), exposing...

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