- Immigrants in Prairie Cities: Ethnic Diversity in Twentieth Century Canada
As Roy Loewen and Gerry Friesen make perfectly clear, Canadian multiculturalism has a history that long predates the rather famous federal policy of 1971. More to the point, this history is not rooted solely in Canada’s largest and seemingly most ethnically diverse cities — the great immigrant reception centres of the post-1970 era, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. In some ways, then, Immigrants in Prairie Cities serves as a corrective to the MTV-centric focus of most studies of Canadian multiculturalism and argues that a “distinct variation on the Canadian model of cultural diversity” developed in the urban centres of the western interior over the course of the twentieth century (p. 3). Indeed, the authors maintain that “the western prairie and its leading cities have been a forcing ground for Canada’s discussions of multiculturalism for most of the twentieth century” (p. 7). But readers should not be misled by the tone of these comments, for this study is far more than just another western plea for inclusion in the larger narrative of Canadian history.
Rather modestly the authors claim that their work is largely synthetic. It is true that they have synthesized a vast amount of unpublished thesis and dissertation material as well as an expanding secondary literature related to the history and reception of immigrant groups in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, and — to a much lesser extent — Saskatoon and Regina. But they have also added some fascinating new research to the mix, most notably the oral histories conducted by Gerry Friesen and the reports and other work produced by scholars associated with the Winnipeg Immigration History Research Group. Moreover, Immigrants in Prairie Cities provides a state-of-the-art approach to the writing of both immigration and social history.
Simply put, there are no static categories of analysis in this book. Ethnicity/race, class, gender, ideology, generation, family, community, and faith are all portrayed as transmutable and interactive. In this regard, the influence of Clifford [End Page 167] Geertz, Edward Said, Fredrik Barth, Kathleen Neils Conzen, and perhaps especially Homi Bhabha can be felt at every turn in what is a fairly sophisticated analysis of the emergence of a profoundly “hybridized” western Canadian urban society. Further, this is only the tip of the theoretical iceberg, for just below the surface lies a considerable intellectual debt to Benedict Anderson, Franca Iacovetta, David Harvey, and Eric Hobsbawm, among others — an impressive cast of characters for a book that claims “it is really not about theory” (p. 5). Perhaps a better way to put it would be this: readers of the eight case studies that constitute the book’s substantive chapters are not inundated with the jargon-laden terminology all too often associated with works that are theoretically oriented. Rather, they get the best these theoretical perspectives have to offer, while reading clear, concise prose that carries forth the core narrative of “people meeting people.” The authors are not, of course, Pollyannas. They concede that these meetings were sometimes characterized by cultural and ethnic fragmentation and conflict, but at the end of the day what struck Loewen and Friesen the most was the “interconnectedness that has emerged in the cities of Canada’s western interior” (pp. 5–6).
The book is broken down into three parts, reflecting three loosely defined time periods (1900 to the 1930s, 1940 to the 1960s, and 1970 to the 1990s), and the two authors have contributed distinct chapters rather than co-authoring each one. Friesen was responsible for the three chapters on Winnipeg, while Loewen authored the five more broadly focused chapters on the “other” prairie cities — although he never ignores Winnipeg completely. This division of labour could have made the book feel disjointed, but Loewen and Friesen largely avoid this pitfall by crafting chapter introductions highlighting the linkages between each essay and by ensuring that every chapter carries out the central objectives spelled out in the introduction. Most notably the authors continually examine and re-examine two key phenomena...