Unwritten Histories

The Unwritten Rules of History

Editorial: A Child of Immigrants

I am a child of immigrants

Like so many of you, I was utterly heartbroken by last week’s American election results. But amidst everything that happened that night, one thing stands out foremost in my mind: this tweet from Ann Coulter.

 


When I saw this, my blood froze. Because I know that even though all four of my grandparents were born in Canada, I was one of the people she was talking about; I was a child of immigrants.

Let me explain.

 

There is a very strong relationship between understandings of history and nationalism/national identity. This hearkens back to Benedict Anderson’s concept of an “imagined community,” where large countries with diverse populations create a shared historical narrative or collection of experiences that serves to tie all of us together. While these narratives may incorporate historical facts and verifiable events, they are, to a large extent, invented, and serve to convey a particular message that often revolves around who does and doesn’t belong within the nation.

So when Anne Coulter is speaking, she is explicitly saying that the only “true” Americans are those who are who have grandparents who were born in the United States. But because in her view the US used to be a “White” country, she is also implying that the only people who have the right to claim that are White people.

And despite what so many Canadians believe, this type of implicit identity boundary demarcation is at work here as well.

You can see it every time someone proudly proclaims that their grandparents “built this country through their hard work,” that “my family has been here for over a hundred years,” and that “I can trace my family all the way back to England!” Because while it may seem like these statements are innocent, they are far from it.

These claims imply that one’s level of Canadianness is tied to the length of time their family has been in this country, and in their minds, the only people who lived here until relatively recently were White.

Where did they get this idea? From historians. Just take a look at any high school or university history class in Canada. Our historical narrative is almost exclusively White, with guest appearances by “disappearing” Indigenous peoples, Chinese labourers, and Japanese-Canadian internees. Our traditional historical narrative is so White, it’s blinding. Literally, because it’s all a bunch of bullshit.

First of all, I think we need to start by saying that unless you are Indigenous, you have no right to claim this land. Period.

Second, we tend to think of Canadian diversity as being a recent phenomenon. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. There have been people of vastly different races, ethnicities, religions, nationalities living in Canada for as long as there have been French and English colonists. Just to give you one example, the first Jewish person to set foot in the place we now call Canada was Esther Brandeau, a French Jewish woman who came to North America disguised as a boy in 1738. You read that correctly, 1738, not 1938.

And third, for as long as there have been non-Indigenous peoples here, there have been individuals bent on creating and implementing laws that ensure that only “desirable” peoples get to stay. Brandeau, for example, was unceremoniously deported when she was discovered and refused to convert to Catholicism.

But all of this has been erased from our collective imagination and replaced with a tidy narrative where White people ruled this land until the 20th century, when suddenly non-White and non-European peoples arrived.

The story of multiculturalism policy is a case in point. The policy did not come about because the Canadian state wanted all ethnic groups to be equal. It was ultimately about integrating immigrants, 2nd and 3rd generation minorities, and even Indigenous Peoples into one of the two English and French “societal cultures” – to wit “multiculturalism within a bilingual framework.” (See Iacovetta and Bohaker).

This is never going to change unless someone stands up and speaks out about it. And right now, that’s what I’m doing, because I owe it my ancestors who built this country too.

Now to be fair, I am an extraordinarily privileged woman. I come from a middle class family. I have pale (ish) skin, and advanced education. But it is impossible for me to forget that it hasn’t always been like this for people in my family, or that I am still vulnerable to hate. Because I’m Jewish.

Jewish people occupy a really fascinating space when it comes to their racial designation. Aside from the whole “are we a religion, culture, or an ethnicity?” question, many Jewish people, especially those of Ashkenazi or Eastern European descent, are able to successfully pass as White people. And I’m one of the lucky ones, since, most of the time, people tend to think I’m Italian, Greek, or Spanish. In fact, the only and only time that I have had a “where did you come from” conversation was when I was visiting the US for a conference. But while many Jews can pass for White, this passing is always precarious.

The one place where the “Whiteness” of Jewish-Canadians often breaks down is religion. Whiteness is largely invisible because it represents what a society considers to be “normal” or the “status quo.” And, like it or not, the Christian religion and culture are tied up into this. Most people celebrate Christmas; most people do not celebrate Chanukah. Which is why I have been informed — very kindly of course — several times that I was going to burn in hell because I didn’t believe in Jesus, that Jews killed Jesus Christ, and, one memorable time, that Jews were punished with the Holocaust because they weren’t Christian. I have been told numerous times that Jews just need to get over the Holocaust; it was 70 years ago and anti-Semitism doesn’t exist anymore. And when I was working in retail, I had to argue with my managers about getting Jewish holidays off and then listen to my coworkers complain that I should have to come into work on Thanksgiving since I didn’t work on Rosh Hashanah.

All of this is because Jews, like so many other ethnic groups, have been effectively written out of Canadian history. I can see the same thing happening right now with Leonard Cohen. He is being hailed as a “great Canadian treasure.” But that man was Jewish to the core. His mother was a Jewish immigrant, his father was the son of Jewish immigrants. His grandfather was a founder of the Canadian Jewish Congress, the largest Jewish advocacy and philanthropic organization in Canada. He grew up in Montreal at a time that was rife with anti-Semitism. And there has scarcely been any mention of his Jewishness in any of the reporting of his death. Watching the coverage and seeing the memorials to him appearing in Montreal makes me feel frustrated. Because if you truly wanted to honour the man, you should be placing a stone, not a candle, at the memorial. That is how Jewish people honour their dead; by placing a stone on their grave as a tangible marker that “I have been here.”

In some ways, my experiences pales (no pun intended) in comparison to those of people of colour, Indigenous Peoples, people who belong to non Judeo-Christian faiths, and new immigrants. It especially frustrates me to see so many people who are the descendants of immigrants repeat anti-immigrant rhetoric. I have heard people whose ancestors come from Ireland, England, Germany, Italy, China, and so on complain endlessly about “those damn immigrants who come to this country expecting a handout.” I live in Richmond, and the local newspaper regularly prints letters to the editors complaining about Chinese immigrants and how they refuse to speak English and integrate into Canadian society.

The Canadian (and American) “identity” is based upon a wilful and purposeful creation of boundaries – it is about who gets in and who does not. It’s not hypocrisy if it’s endorsed by the state. The narrative is that if you do a, b, and c, you will become “Canadian.” First generation immigrants to Vancouver, for example, have been known to complain that the new Mandarin-speaking immigrants from mainland China aren’t doing what they did (learn the language, “integrate into the community”), even though, as we know from historical and sociological studies, every generation acts this way. Mom and dad or grandma and grandpa keep their language and culture (Chinese); the kids become “acculturated” (Chinese-Canadian); the third generation sees themselves as “Canadian” or “of Chinese heritage.”

Joanne Freeman, a professor of history at Yale, posted the following on Twitter last week:

 


So I implore you to remember your ancestors and your history in this country. If you are descendent from immigrants, you need to remember why they chose or were forced to leave their homes behind and come to North America. We need to remember that so many of our ancestors too were reviled, targeted as outsiders or undesirables, accused of stealing jobs and rights away from their rightful owners, and repeatedly told to “go home.” We need to remember that our country’s history is as diverse and “multicultural” as ours is today, and that, with the exception of Indigenous peoples, no one group has any right to claim to have more of a right to this country that anyone else. We need to remember our ancestors’ struggles and triumphs, because they did it for us, so that we could benefit from better lives than they did. And because your authenticity as a “Canadian” should not depend on how long you or your family has lived in this country.

We need to remember because this is still happening. and that we are not immune to the kind of hatred and discrimination that we see in the United States. We owe it to our ancestors to honour their memories by accepting newcomers and making them feel like they are a part of this country. I need to remember this because my husband is an immigrant and a proud Canadian citizen. And he deserves the same rights as I do.

As Sarah York-Bertram put it, we are historians living in a post-truth era. So stand up and make your voice count. Look inside yourself, recognize your privilege, and use it to help others. Research, write, and speak about the diverse history of this place. Call out racism, sexism, homophobia, transmisogyny, Islamophobia whenever you can. Because we need historians now more than ever.

 


Thanks for reading. Unwritten Histories will be back on Friday with a preview of December publications in Canadian history.

 

For more on this, please see:

Heidi Bohaker and Franca Iacovetta, “Making Aboriginal People ‘Immigrants Too’: A Comparison of Citizenship Programs for Newcomers and Indigenous Peoples in Postwar Canada, 1940s-1960s,” Canadian Historical Review, 90, no 3 (September 2009): 427-461.

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2 Comments

  1. Hi Andrea,

    I agree with your idea regarding the narrow perspective of most Canadian history writing. I deplore the attitude of some people that their identity, qua Canadian, is partially a function of how many generations their immediate family has been in Canada. To me, the concept of being Canadian is aspirational in the sense that there is something distinctive, progressive and sustainable about living in Canada with shared values.

    Regarding the treatment of Leonard Cohen, the CBC National news interviewed a congregation member of Sha’arei Shemayim who said that Leonard always considered himself proudly Jewish. I would like to think that the writing of Mordecai Richler, Irving Layton, Irwin Cotler and many others has educated us about the history of anti-semitism in Canada. By the way, Cohen’s songs were sung last night during a memorial for him in Christie Pits, site of a horrible incident of anti-semitism in the 1930s.

    I think that some Canadians and foreigners may not be aware of the dark, shameful chapters in our history (Indian Act, residential schools, the Chinese Head Tax, the internment of the Japanese-Canadians, None is Too Many…the list is long). As Thomas Berger mentioned, our freedoms are fragile. We should be vigilant against any symptoms of hatred and xenophobia.

    I am a committee member that organizes oath-taking ceremonies for new Canadians on behalf of the Institute of Canadian Citizenship. Your blog was shared on FB by one of my fellow committee members. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Andrea Eidinger

      November 17, 2016 at 3:17 pm

      Hi Cam! Thanks for your comment! I absolutely agree that our freedoms are fragile and precarious. And the fight is certainly not over. Racism, sexism, etc… are still very much pervasive in our society. Not to mention that Canada is a colonial state that is based on the disenfranchisement of Indigenous peoples. Which is why I think the philosophy of tikkum olam is so important, especially now! I had no idea they sang Leonard Cohen songs at Christie Pits. Sigh. I wonder if they even acknowledged its history. I think that while Jews are very aware that Cohen was Jewish, many people were not. I daresay there are quite a few anti-semitists who love his music…. And on a side note, my husband is giving a talk at our local multiculturalism society on Friday about Canadian history for new immigrants preparing to take the citizenship test. Funny coincidence. 🙂

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