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Origins

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Americans/J.m. Bumsted

Defining an American is not as simple as it would appear. A definition that restricts itself to citizens of the United States, while at first glance plausible, upon reflection poses many problems. Almost all American historians agree that there were Americans before there was a United States, and indeed the emergence of an American nationality within the British Empire was one of the major causes of the rupture with Great Britain. Certainly Nova Scotia, which received thousands of settlers from the New England colonies before 1776, recognized those newcomers as “Americans” and labelled them as such in its 1767 census. In more recent times, the Canadian census confined the use of the word “American” to a political concept of United States citizenship, and this narrowly legalistic definition had dubious results. Until 1991 it was impossible for a person being enumerated in a Canadian census to identify his or her national origins as American, because American was defined as a political rather than a cultural or ethnic category. (The same rule has applied to Canadians.) The 1991 census did permit people to “write in” American as a national origin, but this nationality, unlike British and French, was not on the census check-off list. The difficulty of adopting the identification of American is one of the reasons why only 49,390 people of American origin appear in the 1991 Canadian census, while millions of people of British and French origin are listed.

Any definition of American must accept both that there were Americans before there was a United States and that “American” has an ethnocultural as well as a political dimension. Scholars have spent much time debating the essential characteristics of the American identity and there is much disagreement over the mix, but few would deny the existence of a cultural nationality that is distinctively American. For their part, Canadians have frequently defined themselves in terms of the perceived differences between their values and American ones. Thus American culture is often regarded by Canadians as chauvinistic, inward-looking, boastful, aggressive, and violent – whereas Canadians are somehow “nicer.” Such efforts may in the end tell us more about Canadians than about Americans, but they do testify to the long-standing perception on both sides of the border that to be American typically involves more than mere citizenship.

Although most newcomers to Canada from south of the border are and have been both United States citizens and cultural Americans, there are some who do not entirely fit under either of these two categories. The American blacks who came to Canada before the American Civil War, for example, were almost without exception not American citizens, and the extent to which they embodied mainstream American culture is debatable. Whether “American Indians” in the nineteenth century were citizens of the United States is a complex question, as is that of whether aboriginal culture was American. Finally, large numbers of newcomers to Canada came from the United States but were not citizens, not having been born there. Many of these people retained some of the culture of their immigrant origins, but most had been profoundly influenced by their American residency in ways that cannot be properly measured. (See also ABORIGINALS; AFRICAN CANADIANS; HUTTERITES; MENNONITES; MORMONS.)

People from the United States (or its colonial predecessors) have migrated to Canada for nearly two hundred and fifty years. It is difficult to characterize those migrants with any simple formula, both because of the long duration of the migratory experience and because of other reasons inherent in such a lengthy history. The United States has always been a nation of immigrants, and the ethnic composition of its own population (and the resultant culture) has altered greatly over the centuries under the pressure of new immigration and other factors. Furthermore, American immigration to Canada has not been a steady stream over the course of more than two centuries. Instead, there have been certain periods in which Americans came to Canada in significantly greater numbers and/or represented a substantially greater proportion of the overall immigrant total.

There has always been such a constant flow of population across the border that discussion cannot be confined solely to the periods of greater significance. Nevertheless, those eras and the troughs between them are worth emphasizing. The first significant period was between 1749 and 1812, when Americans constituted the largest single immigrant group in Canada and had an enormous impact on Canadian society and culture in a variety of areas. The anti-American backlash following the War of 1812 (particularly in Upper Canada, or Ontario as it later became known) kept American immigration to British North America relatively small in absolute numbers between 1815 and 1871 and almost minuscule in comparison with the influx of British immigrants in these years; the largest single component was blacks, freed and slave. American immigration picked up with the opening of the Canadian west after 1871, peaking in the years immediately preceding World War I. It then declined until the 1950s, when, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the total immigration to Canada, it increased significantly.

Over the years, Americans have come to Canada as individuals and in groups for virtually all of the usual reasons explaining immigration: religious and political persecution, racial discrimination, and economic opportunity. Some, most notably those belonging to pacifist religious groups of mainly German origin, such as the Amish and the Hutterites, immigrated to Canada to preserve their religio-ethnic identities from the perceived threat of American nationalism. Among this category of migrants, some arrived as refugees during and immediately after the American Revolution, but every war in which the United States was involved produced at least a trickle of pacifists seeking to avoid military involvement. Other religious groups, such as the Mormons, came partly to preserve their collective identity and also to acquire new land. Yet members of religious communities have not been the only exiles or refugees from the United States to migrate to Canada. There have been four other major groups of refugees: the Loyalists, who abandoned their homes in the United States after the American Revolution out of political conviction; blacks, both freed and slave, who made their way along the so-called Underground Railway and via other means into Canada and British North America in the decades before the American Civil War; Amerindians, who were driven off their traditional lands in territory claimed by the United States; and war resisters from every war, but particularly from the Vietnam War of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Through the centuries, refugees or exiles have probably been the distinct minority among American immigrants to Canada. Many American newcomers have been attracted in part by the open spaces and greater sense of social order that has seemed to characterize Canada in comparison with the United States. Most, however, have been drawn by various sorts of economic opportunity. The availability of land for agricultural purposes and economic advancement has been the greatest attraction, but many Americans have come to take up specific employment, in the resource industries of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and, more recently, in the professions (especially university teaching, engineering, and medicine).

Although identifiable subgroups among immigrants to Canada born in the United States have not shared all the attributes of American nationality and culture, most have brought distinctively American traits – such as a predilection for freehold land tenure – with them. Over time many of those ways have become Canadian as well, partly because of the cultural influence of the newcomers, but more significantly because of a shared continental environment. It is extremely difficult to separate the direct influence of the large numbers of American immigrants upon Canadian culture and the indirect influence resulting both from the presence of the United States on the southern border of Canada and from the similar settlement experiences of the two countries.

Most American immigrants to Canada have always spoken English, and it could well be argued that those coming to Canada from the United States who did not speak English were not truly assimilated Americans to begin with. The non-English speakers included several of the religious groups mentioned above, chiefly the Amish, Mennonites, and the Hutterites; recent immigrants to the United States who decided to move on to Canada, particularly Scandinavians from the American mid-west; and a substantial proportion of the nineteenth-century Amerindians driven across the border by the great Indian wars. We know very little about the language spoken by the black immigrants, especially the slaves, although it probably ranged from standard American English of the time to various black dialects of English. The most important characteristic of standard American English, of course, was that it was quite different in pronunciation and vocabulary from the English spoken by immigrants to Canada from the British Isles, amounting in most cases to what linguists would call a variant or variety of English rather than a distinct dialect. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, American accents (often labelled as “Yankee”) were much more readily identifiable in Canada than they would become in the twentieth century, with its tendency toward an homogenized North American English. But regional American accents, particularly those from the American south and southwest, continue to be one of the readily distinguishable features of many Americans in Canada. Indeed, Canadians, especially those from central and western Canada, speak North American English with less regional accent than many Americans do. In any event, both spoken and written English have always travelled back and forth across the border with little difficulty.