Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945

  • Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945
    by Marilyn Barber and Murray Watson
  • Swedes in Canada: Invisible Immigrants
    by Elinor Barr

Reviewed by John Douglas Belshaw

Can you see it? It would be terrifically ironic if you couldn’t. And there’s a pun in there as well -- “Barr colonists”? But the least visible commonality is the landmark work from which these two -- intentionally or not -- derive their title: Charlotte Erickson’s 1972 study, Invisible Immigrants: The Adaptation of English and Scottish Immigrants in Nineteenth-Century America. The fact that Erickson (surely a Swedish name?) isn’t cited until the last pages of Barber and Watson and not at all in Barr is puzzling to say the least.

The invisibility of English and Swedish immigrants to Canada is due to different factors. In the case of the former, it largely reflects their privileged position as part of the country’s dominant context group and the consequent fact that they have little need for an ethnic enclave of their own. Scots, Irish, and even Welsh might express their differentness but those demonstrations use Englishness as a point of departure. Barber and Watson argue that this puts the English immigrant into a peculiar and arguably unique position in a multicultural, pluralist society. As regards the Swedes, invisibility is a strategy, according to Barr, one that is both consistent with traditional Swedish reserve and fortified by anti-Swedish feeling that arose during the Great War. Two days of nativist attacks on the Swedish enclave in Winnipeg along Logan Avenue in January 1919 struck terror into the diaspora. Keeping a lowered profile, anglicizing surnames, and voluntarily assimilating into the Anglophonic mainstream made sense. English immigrants might be confronted with the occasional anglophobic “English need not apply” but they have never been at the receiving end of a window-smashing campaign.

Methodologically these are very different studies. Barr’s work addresses the absence of any national study on the Swedish presence. Even the Canadian Historical Association’s Immigration and Ethnicity booklet series has omitted the Swedes. Barr’s reply is a near-encyclopaedic account, which begins with the context of emigration and moves through the building of communities and cultural institutions, and the experience of twentieth century crises, gender issues, and assimilation. There is, as well, a short original piece by Charles Wilkins on the history of Swedish ice hockey players in the NHL (232-5). Most of Barr’s sources are secondary accounts while Barber and Watson lean heavily on original interviews of English immigrants. A team of researchers, including Barber and Watson (it seems), were tasked with conducting open-ended sessions with English immigrants. This is a heavily qualitative approach, so qualitative that the number of interviewees is not disclosed (or if it is, I can’t find it). Nor is the system by which Barber and Watson identified potential interviewees revealed. However interesting the interviews might be, the extent to which the accounts are typical is never measured or argued and one can only guess at how many respondents were involved and from whence they were drawn: these points have an impact on the usefulness of their research.

Another shared constraint has to do with defining these two immigrant populations. In the census and other records “English” is not always easily teased out of categories like “English & Welsh” or “British;” the Swedish equivalents are “Norwegian & Swedish” and “Scandinavian.” Barr describes, too, how Swedish-Finns were recruited separately as immigrants, how they sometimes made connections with Swedish-Swedes in Canada, and how they steered clear of Finnish-Finns. Ethnicity is, however, persistent across generations: “Swedish Canadians” in Barr can include folks descended from, say, one pair of Swedish grandparents who arrived a century earlier. Engagement with the ancestral culture might be very marginal indeed in such cases and the decline of Swedish language newspapers is one measure of the pace of assimilation by the 1980s and 1990s. By contrast, the vast majority of newspapers in Canada are “English language,” so if an English immigrant community ever established a distinctive organ for the diaspora we’d barely notice it.

Immigration theory is not heavily engaged in either study. “Pulls” and “pushes” -- the simplest model of emigration/immigration -- are cited in both works. Neither study explicitly considers the role played by retentive forces, nor the counterforce represented by “repulsion.” And, let’s face it, there’s a lot about Canada that might repel potential immigrants. Barber and Watson admit so much when they describe their methodology as one that neglects immigrants who returned home; Barr, by contrast, describes several failures, including the forty Swedish-Ukrainians who abandoned Alberta by 1931 because what they found when they got there was quite a bit less than what was promised (48).

These books are both explorations of immigrant groups in Canada. What, then, do they have to offer the reader of BC Studies? In the case of Barber and Watson, the answer is: a few anecdotes. There’s little in the index to suggest a British Columbian focus and many of the stories on which they concentrate suggest an east-of-the-Rockies perspective. This is both odd and unfortunate, because if any English-speaking province challenges the “Canadian” experience of the English it is surely British Columbia. Where could an English immigrant hide in plain view as easily as Victoria? Where else have rugby and cricket found relatively fertile soil? These questions go unanswered or, in the case of sports, the old chestnut about Canada being the odd one out among the colonies is allowed another innings. As for Barr, she provides some material that is of interest to British Columbianists, specifically material on the Vancouver-region Swedish communities. The index is more serviceable and there are some useful appendices as well. On the whole, however, the focus is more on the Prairie provinces, which makes some sense in terms of the distribution of Swedish immigrants.

 At the end of the day, studies of this kind depend on the artifacts left behind and the contemporary testimony of what Barr describes as “Canadians with a relatively high degree of ethnic consciousness”(13). What is missing, necessarily, is accounts of and from the truly invisible: the immigrant whose rejection of ethnic typologies, ancient loyalties, modern symbols, and nationalistic urges is complete or nearly so. Barber and Watson conclude where, perhaps, they might have started. They “suggest that it is regrettable that one of the most common words in titles of academic works about English immigrants is invisible”(254). If invisibility is, in fact, an experience shared with other groups, then we might want to ask less of the chameleon and more of the background into which s/he disappears.

Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945
Marilyn Barber and Murray Watson
Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2015. 283pp. $27.95 paper

Swedes in Canada: Invisible Immigrants
Elinor Barr
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015. xv, 554pp. $35.95 paper


BC Studies no. 192 Winter 2016/17