Regionalism and “Unlimited Identity” in Western Canada
- Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d'études canadiennes
- University of Toronto Press
- Volume 15, Number 2, Summer 1980
- pp. 121-126
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Regionalism and "Unlimited Identity'' in Western Canada DAYID JAY BERCUSON By the eve of the First World War a tidal wave of immigration had brought hundreds of thousands of foreigners to Canada. The expansion of population stimulated economic growth and created tremendous optimism about the future among Canadians. But it also created great difficulties. There were few Canadian leaders in government, church, the press, education and social service - who did not think about the impact foreigners would have on the very character of Canada. Men as far apart in their views as Clifford Sifton and J.S. Woodsworth shared the opinion that foreigners must be assimilated. One newspaper put the matter simply: ''The serious character of the problem may be stated thus: if we do not Canadianize and Christianize the newcomer , [sic] he will make us foreigners and heathen on our own soil and under our own flag." 1 The assimilation process - the moulding of mind and thought - is a vital part of the creation of national attitudes. How people assimilate and what they assimilate into can be crucial to the development of a national identity, especially when the host society is itself diverse. In Canada, as elsewhere, the assimilation process was designed to make immigrants into Canadians in such a way that a sense of common identity and purpose would emerge. This, it was hoped, would cement the immigrants to their adopted homeland. Peoples from countless backgrounds would become, simply, Canadian.2 It was clearly not intended, at least not by those who spoke and wrote of the necessity to assimilate the foreigner, that Russians, for example, would identify themselves as Albertans or westerners. Assimilation was always seen as a nationalizing process, not a regionalizing or provincializing one. And yet today, in western Canada - a society largely created by immigrants - regionalism and provincialism are strong. In Journal ofCanadian Studies Vol. 15, No. 2(Ete1980Summer) attempting to come to grips with regionalism, scholars have studied political development, resource ownership, economic policies, transportation patterns and the impact of communications systems, but have rarely studied the nationalizing process itself to see if it too can be made to yield explanations for the continued existence of regionalism and provincialism in Canada. We now know more than ever about the attitudes of "Canadians" towards the immigrants,3 but we still know little about the process of assimilation itself. And yet it is possible that the basic nature of that assimilation and nationalizing process in western Canada may in part, perhaps in large part, have contributed to the strength of regional feeling in the Canadian west. It was precisely here, in prairie Canada, that a truly new part of the nation was built. On the prairies there were no local traditions based on years of local and regional loyalties such as existed in older parts of Canada. Assimilation is a moulding of attitude; regionalism, like nationalism, and like other forms of self-identification, is attitude. People always have allegiances and identities that link them with other people, ideas or institutions. Regionalism - the willingness or the need to identify with a region - is only one of a number of these allegiances that people have at the same time. This regional identity may not be any more significant or deeply felt than neighbourhood, civic, provincial, national or even international identities.· But it will almost certainly become special when an issue arises which directly affects the interest of the people of the region in question. This is usually true when they believe they will suffer primarily because they live together in a single region. The people of the region tend to emphasize their regional identity - they rarely forsake their other identities - as long as the issue in question remains important to them. When we study regionalism, or any other form of identification, we are really studying attitude and we must be careful to remember that attitude does not exist in a vacuum. We must also be careful not to study this attitude in order to place blame for it, to 'cure' it or to cheer on those who express it. The job of scholars is to find out why 121 it takes the particular forms it does in...