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.