Immigrants in Prairie Cities

Canadians know themselves as ethnically diverse, as belonging to a country where multiculturalism is “official.” Although we probably think first of major cities like Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver when we consider where this concept is displayed, the cities of the prairies – Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton – have also shaped “a distinct variation on the Canadian model of cultural diversity,” say the authors of Immigrants in Prairie Cities: Ethnic Diversity in Twentieth-Century Canada (U of T Press, 2009).

They were relatively smaller, inland cities, and received wave after wave of immigrants, thus requiring “sustained inter-group contact.” They were “a forcing ground” for Canada’s long and ongoing discussions of multiculturalism.

Royden Loewen and Gerald Friesen were professors of mine when I returned to university, about a decade ago now, to do a master’s degree in history. I also sat in on a few meetings of a group of post-doctoral and graduate students whose research would contribute to this volume.

Their book examines the ethnic networks or “webs” that immigrant communities developed in their new environments, and the activity in the “boundary zones” where established residents encountered immigrants. It also pulls into the mix the largest single group of “foreign” newcomers to the city – those second and third generation Canadian immigrants who were part of a great mid-century migration from the prairie countryside into the city.

If there’s one overarching impression Loewen and Friesen leave, it’s how rich and complex the whole process of immigration has been in prairie society. Immigrants faced huge challenges within, and sometimes against, established groups and structures. But they seemed endlessly inventive in negotiating identity and well-being in their new country. Religion and family were very important, though there was also conflict in these spheres as generational and gender expectations shifted.

The “old” Canadians changed too, of course, sometimes intentionally, sometimes reluctantly. (Loewen and Friesen take on the Canadian myth that we’re not a racist country. It’s exactly that: a myth.)

I’ll leave the scholarly assessments to other historians and just say that I enjoyed this book. I’ve lived in three prairie cities and am the granddaughter of immigrants to the prairies, so it felt more than theoretical to me at many points. I think it would be of interest, and useful too, to anyone who finds themselves in situations of ethnic diversity – in boundary zones, as it were – wherever it might be in Canada, but especially in one of the prairie cities. Knowledge of the past goes a long way to explaining the present and, in demonstrating how “old” and “new” have interacted, also suggests correctives and hope for the future.

My only critique would be of the cover. The painting, “Saturday Night,” is lovely but there’s an elevator in the background and to me the scene has the feel of a small town rather than a city.

5 thoughts on “Immigrants in Prairie Cities

  1. Lovely comments on what sounds like a great book, Dora. As a lover of the North American plains, have you read the work of Willa Cather? She is my favorite author from my dissertation research.

    • Thanks, Shirley. I remember being strongly affected by “My Antonia” when I read it as a girl. And later I read “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” But those are the only two I’ve read. I take your recommends seriously, so of this your favourite dissertation author, which is your favourite book?

  2. I’m intrigued by this comment because I agree with it: “Loewen and Friesen take on the Canadian myth that we’re not a racist country. It’s exactly that: a myth.”

    I’m curious how they describe racism in Canada, because to me it seems to be a subtle racism that hides in the shadows of our multicultural identity as a country. It’s like we’ve tricked ourselves into being better than we really are.


    • Hi David. The evidence emerges through a variety of historical studies, running parallel, as it were, with concerted and positive efforts to forge a multicultural identity. For example, negative responses of various kinds to the Vietnamese and other Asians coming into Alberta in the late 70s and 80s, alongside “remarkable humanitarian concern for boat people.” In Manitoba, a number of studies showed widespread Aboriginal recognition of racism, also responses from Caribbean immigrants, as well as “ugliness” around the French language crisis of 1983-84. The authors note that “racist outbursts and pluralist celebration [museums, festivals, Folklorama] coexisted.” I think your word “subtle” is the right one here; we celebrate this piece of our identity and perhaps do not so badly at it, but perhaps unless we really catch up what’s going on at the deepest level of our feelings and respect (or lack of it), it’s a kind of self-trickery, as you say. The book quotes Manitoba sociologist Lori Wilkinson: “If you’re talking about people in general, attitudes are changing. There is less acceptance now of racial slurs. But we’re still fighting some battles on the covert forms of racism.”

      • Thanks Dora, that’s helpful in better understanding how I see the situation. And from my experience in BC, I’m not sure it’s that different this side of the Rockies. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “I’m not racist, but…” I think the fact we still hear this qualification in our judgment of others reveals this “self-trickery” (great term!).

        I think we’ve got a ways to go yet as a country (and sadly, as Christians) in being honest with our attitudes and hopefully changing them.

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