Personal Narratives of Place and Displacement: Day One

I’m in Winnipeg, at the Mennonite/s Writing VIII conference, and I thought I would  try to throw up some personal impressions at the end of each day, but if that’s not your thing, feel free to ignore the next few posts.

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News and notes

1. The launch of my book, This Hidden Thing, is about a week and a half away now. I expect that for a short time, at least, the book will have something of a life of its own, so I’ve given it a separate page, above. I’ll probably say something about the launch event here after it happens on May 19, but I’ll park reviews and other stuff related to it there. Already up, the news release Jonathan Dyck of CMU Press put together, the book flyer, and order information. 

2. I’ve agreed to serve on the advisory council for the Chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg for the next three years. This is a relatively easy and also pleasurable task, involving free lunch twice a year at the university and listening/responding to a report of what Royden Loewen, as well as students and other professors involved with the Chair are up to. They’re up to a lot, actually, including the planning of two conferences this year, one on Mennonites in Siberia which is taking place in Omsk, Siberia in June, and one in Winnipeg, Oct. 14-16, called “Mennonites, Melancholy and Mental Health: Historical Reflections.” I’m under no obligation to “do press” for the Chair, but some of the papers proposed for the latter (examples: “Madness in my Family’s Journey,” “Duke Ferdinand vs Pilgram Marpeck: Lunatics or Preachers of Care,” “Trauma, War and Soviet Mennonite Women Refugees”) sound so interesting I’m keen to offer advance notice. Further information here.

3. Another event that greatly intrigues me, which unfortunately I not be able to attend as we’ll be away on holidays then, is “Celebrating 150 Years!” This has been organized by Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) for June 5-6 in Winnipeg. I’ve mentioned the 150 year celebrations of the Mennonite Brethren in this blog. This conference recognizes that anniversary, but also the 150-year anniversary of the formation of the General Conference Mennonite Church formed in Iowa in 1860. (This body is now Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA.) These two 150-year-old bodies are the  supporting denominational bodies of  CMU — “two compelling stories…brought together in a special way.”

“[I]t is appropriate to reflect on what we have experienced and learned with and from ‘the other’,” states the conference invitation. Presenters of workshops and discussions have been drawn from both bodies and topics include “Exploring Stereotypes,” “Marriage across the MB-GC Divide,” and “Periodicals as Windows.”

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.