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The Legacy of Other Ethnic Groups

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Canadian Culture And Ethnic Diversity/

One of the most pervasive features of Canada’s dual colonial legacy is a hierarchical view of ethnicity and hence of the significance in Canadian culture of the various immigrant groups who have come to Canada in increasing number and diversity since the late nineteenth century. The Icelanders who settled in Manitoba in the 1870s, the Ukrainians who arrived in Alberta and the other prairie provinces in the years between 1896 and 1930 and in the cities of Ontario after World War II, the Italians who came to Toronto, Montreal, and other urban centres from the 1950s onward, the South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Caribbean peoples who entered the country in ever greater numbers after the liberalization of immigration regulations in 1967 – these and many more whose backgrounds were neither British nor French were relegated to the position of “other” by the hierarchy implicit in the concept of “founding peoples.”

Such ethnic privilege at the heart of Canadian society was challenged by an increasingly politicized “third force,” who demanded a legitimate space and symbolic and cultural, as well as legal, equality. The political synthesis that emerged, in part as a result of such activism, was “multiculturalism,” a potentially radical vision of Canadian society, but one that, at the levels of both ideology and implementation, was pragmatically adapted to the socio-political realities of the country.

Ethnic hierarchy has been manifested historically, not only in the institutions and public discourse related to immigration and diversity, but also in the critical response to literary texts produced by those outside the two “founding peoples.” Perhaps the most relevant example of such privileging of the cultural baggage of the British and French over that of later arrivals is the term “ethnic literature,” which, it could be argued, has been used by critics who wanted at least to acknowledge the presence of the increasingly significant body of literature produced by the more recent immigrants and their children whose backgrounds were neither. This work was virtually absent from the national literary canon until the 1970s, and it has only been embraced wholeheartedly by major cultural arbiters in the last decade.

English-Canadian literary critics until the 1980s largely ignored the “émigré” literature produced in this country by authors writing in Ukrainian, Hungarian, Icelandic, Yiddish, Italian, and a number of other languages. An exception was Watson Kirkconnell, who published translations of poetry written by “new Canadians” in languages other than English and French in the volume Canadian Overtones (1935) and contributed a section on “New Canadian Letters” to the University of Toronto Quarterly from 1937 to 1964. It was not until the 1980s, when Canadian Fiction Magazine produced several “translation issues” and Canadian Literature, the principal academic journal in the field, published issues devoted to Italian-Canadian, Caribbean-Canadian, and Slavic-Canadian literature, that this began to change. Nor did the critics respond to the works written in English by second-generation writers such as Vera Lysenko, Laura Goodman Salverson, John Marlyn, and others until the 1970s and 1980s. The literary history of virtually every “non-founding” immigrant group in Canada has been a chronicle of struggle, first to find a voice and then to be heard and appreciated.

Typically, the literatures of these groups have been based on a rich tradition of folk culture and oral tales which the first generation brought with them. Gradually incorporating Canadian subject matter, often related to the joys and sorrows of immigration, these narratives, together with the writings of a few who constituted the intelligentsia of the group, were sometimes published in religious or ethnic periodicals, often with a quite localized distribution. Other publications were distributed internationally, not only in the home country but also to immigrant communities in the United States and elsewhere. During the first waves of immigration, the intelligentsia were most often the clergy, but after World War II they were more apt to be political dissidents, such as George Faludy and Josef h kvoreckë .

The next stage in this literary evolution has usually been the work in English of second-generation writers who, both willingly and unwillingly, played the difficult role of mediator or apologist, interpreting their group’s experiences to the larger community. Such writings constitute an extremely rich and significant strand in Canadian literature. Like the work presented in the anthology of Chinese-Canadian writing titled Many-Mouthed Birds (1991), which celebrates those who break certain cultural codes by talking too much, this second-generation literature is often framed as confessional, a somewhat risky act of “breaking the silence.” Such diverse books as Laura Goodman Salverson’s Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter (1939), Vera Lysenko’s Yellow Boots (1954), Frank Paci’s Black Madonna (1984), Rudy Wiebe’s Peace Shall Destroy Many (1962), Joy Kogawa’s Obasan (1981), and interestingly, the work of many aboriginal writers, among them Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, share this point of departure. They are often cast in the form of a Bildungsroman, as William New and others have pointed out. John Marlyn’s Under the Ribs of Death (1957), Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959), Lysenko’s Yellow Boots, and Adele Wiseman’s Crackpot are all coming-of-age fictions that depict the perilous world in which the children of immigrants must serve their apprenticeship as North Americans. The spaces in which they grow up are marginal ones, where they must master different – often contradictory – codes of behaviour, frequently without the help of effective mentors.

Another characteristic feature of the “ethnic voice” in Canadian literature, in both the first and subsequent generations, is, as Eli Mandel, Robert Kroetsch, and others have noted, a focus on – indeed, an obsession with – duality. Story after story and novel after novel, as well as numerous poems and plays, articulate a profound sense of dislocation through a series of interlocking binary patterns that are projected in a variety of ways: structural, linguistic, and thematic. Recurring dichotomies are those of the Old World versus the New, success and failure, remembering and forgetting, revelation and concealment. Underlying these themes is kind of subversive, or at least ambivalent, agenda – what both Mandel and Kroetsch refer to as a therapeutic rewriting of myths. The myths that seem to be most fundamental to this literature are those of the garden and the journey: not surprisingly, when one considers the appropriateness of the journey to immigrant experience and how deeply entrenched in Western civilization is the image of the New World as a promised land.

This exploration of the joys and sorrows of journeying, displacement, and finding a place in Canadian society has produced one of the richest strands in our literature. It includes profoundly revealing comparisons between Canada and various “old worlds,” a juxtaposition that fuelled much of the work of first-generation writers such as the German Canadian Frederick Philip Grove, directly in A Search for America (1927) and In Search of Myself (1946) and indirectly in the novels that depict the impact of materialism, such as Fruits of the Earth (1933) and The Master of the Mill (1944). The contrasts and yet inescapable connections between Europe and America also preoccupied Jewish-Canadian writer Henry Kreisel in his short stories and particularly in his two novels, The Rich Man (1948) and The Betrayal (1964); Czech-born Josef h kvoreckë in his novel The Engineer of Human Souls (1983); Caribbean-born Austin Clarke in his many novels and short stories, such as Nine Men Who Laughed (1986); and Indian immigrant writer Rohinton Mistry in Tales from Firozsha Baag (1987). But the theme is also explored by second-generation writers such as Caterina Edwards in The Lion’s Mouth (1982), a novel that contrasts the urban landscapes of Alberta with Venice, thereby revealing the internal tensions of her female immigrant protagonist, and C.D. Minni in such short stories as “Roots” (1974), which juxtaposes images of Italy as an ancient garden with the raw, windswept, elemental landscape of Canada to symbolize the main character’s divided soul. These and many other literary explorations of immigrant experience use the old/new binary to critique both the claustrophobic aspects of the Old World and the spiritual failures of the New.

A success/failure motif is also central to this process. The fictional landscape that emerges from the literature is often what George Woodcock characterized as “a land of invisible ghettos.” Complex, often psychically dangerous, it is a maze of interlocking microcosms whose real, but invisible boundaries separate their inhabitants from one another by means of a complex set of conventions based on ethnicity, wealth, and class. Though Mordecai Richler is probably the most celebrated creator of such a fictional world, there are many others. Guy Vanderhaeghe’s “What I Learned from Caesar” (1987) reveals the price paid by a Dutch immigrant in his ultimately doomed attempt to succeed in Canada. Hugh Cook’s collection of short stories about Dutch immigrants, Cracked Wheat (1985), illuminates a similar landscape. Denise Chong in The Concubine’s Children (1994), Sky Lee in Disappearing Moon Café (1990), and Paul Yee in “Prairie Night 1939” (1990) similarly reveal the confined spaces occupied by their Chinese-Canadian characters. Adele Wiseman’s The Sacrifice (1956) and Crackpot, Ed Kleiman’s The Immortals (1980), and Maara Haas’s The Street Where I Live (1976), while ultimately presenting a positive vision, nevertheless portray a profoundly stratified world.

Overall, then, the increasing diversity of Canadian society throughout the twentieth century has changed not only the demographic profile of the country but also its cultural voice. Canadian literature, once limited to works reflecting either Anglo-Celtic or French sensibilities, is increasingly pluralistic and polyphonic. Indeed, the work produced by “other” voices has been an important tool in effecting this new vision of Canada. Like Joy Kogawa’s silence-breaking novel Obasan, which portrays the experience of Japanese Canadians interned during World War II, and its sequel, Itsuka (1992), this literature has been both the means and the product of revelation. As such, it can be seen as part of a cathartic rite of adaptation, a means of linking old and new, past and present, and a way of transforming communities, individuals, and ultimately Canadian culture.

Characteristically, however, the ambivalence that these writers portray is never fully resolved; it remains in the ironic tone and the self-awareness that are, it could be argued, the products of marginality. Paradoxically, perhaps, this very marginality is what makes the voices from the ethnic “other” so oddly congruent with the characteristically ironic mode of Canadian literature, more exclusively defined, a mode that originates in a post-colonial cultural space. Further, it is a space in which it is not only possible to create new versions of reality, new stories, new mythologies, and new syntheses, but also one in which doing so is fundamental to the authenticity and survival of Canadian culture.

As ethnic voices in Canadian literature illustrate, the immigrant cultural experience in Canada is very much an adaptive process. From the nineteenth century until the present, the first generation has collectively struggled to sustain language, custom, and artistic practice, only to see its Old World culture transformed, often in response to a changing environment, and to have its descendants abandon or reshape its efforts. While certain customs and cultural practices, such as Chinese opera, were transplanted from home, others developed in a New World context. Ukrainian-Canadian and Finnish-Canadian political theatre, for example, was in part a response to the economic, social, and political conditions of immigrant life and flourished in their respective communities in this country during the inter-war years. At the same time, cultural activity was informed by international standards. For example, during the years between 1925 and 1935 a Finnish theatre group in Toronto presented plays by Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Gogol, Hugo, and Molière. Significantly, the performances of Shakespeare interested the English-speaking community to the extent that the city’s major newspaper sent reporters and photographers to the openings.

Partly because of language barriers, however, many of the activities of most ethnic groups were isolated from the dominant culture in English-speaking Canada, although some non-language-based cultural expressions found their way into the consciousness of the Canadian mainstream. Today the cultural organizations and activities of the country’s latest immigrant groups from every continent are more visible to the general public. A new receptivity to multiculturalism, in combination with media exposure, has meant wider audiences for ethnic art events and a less insular cultural life for ethnic groups than was previously the case.

Despite the dominance of Anglo-Canadian interests in the official arts in English-speaking Canada, since colonial times other groups have had some impact on mainstream arts and letters, most notably in the field of folk art. Ethnicity is a fundamental tenet of folk art scholarship, with its celebration of Old World crafts, artistic customs, and material objects brought by successive waves of primarily peasant immigrants. Although the Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1971, which acknowledged “the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage,” implied greater recognition of ethnic cultures, some critics have complained of tokenism and the aesthetic devaluing of ethnic art by mainstream official culture. Carole Carpenter argues that throughout Canadian history, minority-group folklore has been “most commonly treated as ephemera and exotica” and that the contemporary Anglo-Canadian interest is exploitive and politically expedient. From her point of view, minority-group traditions are displayed and multicultural festivals promoted primarily to shore up the political concept of the Canadian mosaic. For Neil Bissoondath the “public face of multiculturalism,” its ethnic festivals, “is the peculiar notion of culture as commodity ... It represents a devaluation of culture, its reduction to bauble and kitsch.”

In many ways, the designation “folk art” is itself problematic, rooted as it is in a hierarchical system of categorization that places the art of the people in an inferior position to the output of the aristocracy or intelligentsia. In this approach, folk art and the contemporary popular culture of the industrialized world can be dismissed as without artistic merit. Calypso culture in Toronto, a form expressive of the Caribbean peoples, provides an illustrative example of “folk” or people’s art that is showcased for the general population in Toronto through a huge summer celebration, Caribana, but accorded little value artistically by the mainstream. Despite the obvious pleasure that calypso gives many Canadians, Annmarie Gallaugher explains that both its elaborate musical rules and its diasporic cultural elements are little understood, and it is undervalued when judged by the standards of Western European music.

While many immigrant group audiences seek to reaffirm cultural and personal identity through ethnic art, it is worth noting that some contemporary urban communities have a non-homogeneous and fluid membership, allowing for diverse artistic influences. In such communities, individual artists may be exposed to multiple new possibilities and may even see Canada as a place of liberation from ethnic conventions. For example, Dahlia Obadiah, a dancer in the Middle Eastern tradition, faces the attitude of her community that dancing by women in public is immoral, but she has felt free to perform in Canada. Trichy Sankaran, an immigrant from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu who arrived in 1971, is a virtuoso on the Indian drum called the mrdangam, performing experimental music that combines classical South Indian, jazz, electronic, African, and Indonesian elements.

The recognition of transplanted ethnic art forms as part of Canadian culture has been a slow, evolving process. Ukrainian dancing is a good example of a folk art custom that has been incorporated into the broader culture over a period of time. Once a community event, it was no longer “folk” once it was performed on stage for an audience. Since its introduction by a Toronto Ukrainian group at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1924, it has involved increasing numbers of Canadians, even as the dance form itself has changed. As Alexandra Pritz explains, Ukrainian dance in Canada “is beginning to function more as a fine-art form than a national folk heritage, though occasionally traditional folk forms ... are revived.”

Perhaps the most enduring contributions of ethnic folk art to Canadian culture are the artefacts of the first immigrants, who brought colour and design into their daily lives through the creation of useful objects. Since Marius Barbeau collected pieces of folk art for the National Museum of Canada (now in the Canadian Museum of Civilization) in the 1920s, aesthetic appreciation of this art in its various forms has steadily advanced. Experts in the field have debated categories and definitions of folk art, but none would disagree that ethnicity has played a major role in the creation of artefacts of material culture. William Taylor, in the catalogue that accompanied the touring exhibit From the Heart assembled by the National Museum of Man in 1983, claims that the folk aesthetic traditions of Canada have been born within the early immigrant groups.

Given mass communications, contemporary folk art tends to be much less representative of group life than in the past, and with the mass production of goods in the global village, fewer individual pieces are created by artisans. The signature of the folk artist is in effect acquiring a new value as the art market expands to accommodate the works of naive “ethnic” artists. Primitive and naive painting has already achieved a certain aesthetic status, and a number of artists have received name recognition and serious critical discussion of their works. Among the non-academic painters with regional or national reputations is Frank Kocevar, an immigrant from Slovenia, who depicted his experiences as a working man on the prairies and in British Columbia, as well as religious images and recollections of his life in the Old World. The childlike sensibility of the folk artist characterizes the work of Molly Lenhardt, the daughter of a Ukrainian pioneer who fought for just treatment of immigrants, and Jeanne Thomarat, who paints images of her long-remembered French homeland. Dutch-born Jan Wyers, whose work has inspired noted prairie sculptor Joe Fafard, depicts the western landscape and work on the land. Jahan Maka, a Lithuanian immigrant in Flin Flon, Manitoba, challenges the boundaries between fine and folk art and has been compared with the Russian-born painter Marc Chagall. These painters redefine folk traditions in ways peculiar to Canada. They reinvent the self through art that often reflects the physical landscapes where they have found themselves as immigrants, and local experience as much as ethnicity defines their compositions. An artist such as Wyers may be identified as a prairie regionalist or as an immigrant painter; the work of Newfoundlander Arch Williams is a historical record of an island community that is distinct in Canada.

When ethnicity is applied to the traditionally defined fine arts, the complexities of the relationship increase. Outside the folk art traditions, artists in Canada have created less from a sense of community than from private vision, individual genius, and dedication to the aesthetic history and vocabulary of the chosen medium. Influenced by the traditions of Western academic art and imperial British, European, and in some genres, American, fine art standards, they have necessarily considered their ethnic heritage to be of minimal importance in the artistic process. Historically, the fine arts in Canada have been rooted in European high-culture traditions and “international” standards; the latter have prevailed over the cultural specifics of Canadian ethnicity in such genres as ballet, opera, and symphonic music. It makes little sense, then, to discuss mainstream Canadian opera companies, for example, or the National Ballet of Canada in terms of Canadian ethnicity; suffice it to say that they represent the institutionalized Eurocentrism and colonial status of Canadian fine arts. These elements are also implicit in the original mandate of the National Gallery of Canada, which in 1907 began to acquire European art to provide a historical context for Canadian works.

Nonetheless, there have in the past been some notable exceptions where ethnicity and community have influenced fine art production. The artistic tastes of the largely peasant immigrants in Winnipeg prior to World War II and their families contributed to the achievement of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, established in 1938 by two genteel British immigrants, Gweneth Lloyd and Betty Farrally. Max Wyman believes that the receptiveness of the city’s ethnically diverse, classless society to the arts “probably played a crucial part in the remarkable success of the ballet in its middle years.” By Wyman’s account, it also survived because it was tailored to community – “a company of and for the prairies.” As well as the European classics, danced with style and taste, original home-grown ballet, or people’s art, was presented: Shadow on the Prairies, choreographed by Lloyd in 1952 to music based on Scottish folk themes; a children’s ballet, Baba Lubov, drawn from Russian folk tales; and The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (1971), based on the play by George Ryga, a socialist playwright of Ukrainian extraction, and choreographed by Norbert Vesak as a commission from the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood. In polyglot Winnipeg, the imported ballet found a natural home.

The intrusion of the peasant’s agrarian vision into the fine arts has perhaps been most dramatically demonstrated in the paintings of William Kurelek, the son of Ukrainian pioneers on the prairies. His canvases depict vast open spaces and the daily lives of his own ethnic community in a naive style. As he put it, “my grandfathers cut their farms from the bush, and my childhood recollections of an old culture in a new land have profoundly influenced all my work.” Kurelek was not, however, a folk painter: he was academically trained and served a long apprenticeship as an artist. Neither did he acknowledge his heritage until, in the mid-1960s, the Ukrainian community discovered him and he subsequently rediscovered himself as an “ethnic artist.” Since many of his clients were Ukrainian, he found himself creating art for this community. But, because they were not familiar with the fine art tradition in their homeland or in Canada, they were somewhat uncomfortable with Kurelek’s interpretive corpus. A twenty-work series commissioned by the Ukrainian Women’s Association of Canada in 1965 disturbed members of the group when they saw that the canvases did not present them in an entirely celebratory light.

Some explicit “ethnic” markers on the Canadian cultural landscape have also been left by individuals in the field of architecture. Radoslav Zuk has designed, among other projects, nine Ukrainian Catholic churches in association with or as consultant to architectural firms. In a discussion of the ethnic influences on his work, he states that he responds to a wide range of architectural considerations in addition to ethnicity. Nonetheless, for five of the churches, he drew upon a “thousand-year old cultural tradition of a characteristic abstract geometric structure” that he felt to be Ukrainian. This approach, in combination with a response to Canadian landscape and people and to twentieth-century architectural developments, allows for a distinctly Canadian contribution to architecture.

Raymond Moriyama, a highly successful Canadian architect of Japanese origin whose father was interned during World War II, was also able to create “ethnic” art when he designed the Japanese Cultural Centre in Toronto in 1963. From the point of view of architectural historian Trevor Boddy, this building, showing contemporary European and Japanese influences, “speaks elegantly of the social and cultural situation of present-day Japanese-Canadians.” But the larger market place may not accommodate such expressions of ethnicity. Boddy believes that “Moriyama’s subsequent buildings are almost totally without discernible Japanese stylistic influences. Moriyama speaks of the lot of the post-war nisei generation, unforgiving of the culture which caused them so much suffering during the war, but at the same time, desperate to assimilate.”

For all artists, ethnicity, however hybrid, is in the first instance an unconscious expression of the self, of personal identity. In this sense, all art is ethnic. For those artists in Canada who have felt the formative influences of a specific ethno-cultural group, there are often few words to express their ways of imagining or experiencing the world. Lydia Palij comments on the possibility of “ethnic spirit” (in Ukrainian, dukhovist) in a creative work, likening it to “a dreamy enigma that can only be felt by an observer. It is mythic; it comes from the depths of an artist’s subconscious; it is like the memory of a scent.” For officially recognized artists in the past, ethnicity would seem to have played little part in the creation of their work. Neither has art that is expressive of ethnic heritage been validated by the conventional art-historical process, which respects artistic mediums and movements as well as, in Canada, art that is representative of place. Northrup Frye observed that the basic question of human identity – “who am I?” – is usurped in Canada by the more pressing puzzle of “where is here?” The response to the latter question was envisioned by “national” artists such as the Group of Seven in their landscape paintings of untamed wilderness. Recognizing that “where is here?” has been a basic question in Canadian art and in defining the “two nations” of Canada, Terrence Health has outlined the conjuncture of north, nature, and nationalism in the Canadian cultural imagination. Thus, the work of William Kurelek, such as the mural The Ukrainian Pioneer, which shows his people’s progress on the prairies and is painted in the style of the folk artist, offers “an awkward challenge to the contemporary art historian’s habitual categories.”

Of the over one hundred artists represented in Joan Murray’s The Best Contemporary Canadian Art, only one, the painter Joan Krawczk, refers to ethnicity explicitly as an influence. The iconic impact of religious pictures that hung in her home in a multicultural neighbourhood shaped her contemporary portraiture, which also shows the influence of the media age. Esther Warkov, a Winnipeg painter, more obliquely refers to her own Jewish background when she comments on the sources of one of her paintings, many of which suggest a Jewish sensibility. Within the context of modernism, too, where the emphasis has been on universal truths, official Canadian culture has not encouraged artistic expression of ethnic “otherness.” Murray employs a modernist’s voice when she states in her introduction that “one of the hallmarks of good art is universality – a deeply personal creation that at the same time speaks to something common to all humanity.”

Such emphasis on universal truths is often now seen as a way of privileging the beliefs of a dominant cultural group. A postmodern sensibility that claims the cultural borders to be the centre, and the fragmentary and diverse to be appropriate cultural and aesthetic norms, is making an impact on the arts in Canada. There is, in effect, a movement towards a new history of art. In the catalogue to a recent exhibit called Screens (1992), presented by the Nickle Arts Museum in Calgary, director and art critic Ann Davis explains: “New art history is characterized in part by a shift away from a universal history of art focused on the art of western Europe and towards separate histories of art; a revision of the hierarchical assumptions of art-making to allow for the inclusion of art produced by women and non-Europeans; a breakdown of the valuative distinction between the high and the popular arts.”

Artists in the fine art tradition have been adjusting over time to the Canadian context. Folk artists, located within discernible ethno-cultural groups, have also reshaped Old World traditions in the New and contributed to a multicultural heritage. In the Canada of tomorrow, home to an ever-increasing global diaspora and to heterogeneous, urban immigrant communities, the hierarchical, colonial past surely cannot repeat itself. If the interface between ethnicity and the arts in Canada in the future is unpredictable, one reality seems certain: a growing number and variety of artistic expressions of multiple and cross-cultural ethnicities. To be sure, culture by its very nature is transformative, in flux. It is both a borrower and a lender – “a shape shifter,” to use a native image. George Woodcock has seen Canadian culture as moving through stages from a colonialism that depended upon imported forms to a nationalism that demands cultural autonomy and, finally, to a self-awareness that allows for sophisticated and hybrid art forms. “National” art, he has said, is always informed by expatriate influences. Canada, like Rome, Byzantium, Britain, and imperial America, must necessarily use “in the development of its own culture a multitude of artists from other lands and traditions.” As we approach this stage of self-awareness, the rich palette of cultural intermixing in this country should continue to be a stimulus to original Canadian art and a cosmopolitan cultural life.