Race-Based Concepts

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Canadian Identity/Allan Smith

Nevertheless, it became increasingly clear that definitions of “nation” and “people” framed in differentiated and specific terms could never mobilize support at the “Canadian” level. Eliciting that support would require precisely the sort of capacious and open sense of the whole towards which the architects of Confederation had been moving; only such a sense would define the nation in terms that transcended section, region, group, and culture and so win allegiance from all parts of the population.

It must immediately be added that thinkers and policy makers did not simply reaffirm Cartier’s idea that Canada was a political nationality equally at the service of the several groups which composed it. Times had changed; new, racist ideas of what constituted a people had arisen; and the population movements in train by the end of the nineteenth century were having a major impact on immigrant societies such as Canada. In these radically altered intellectual and demographic circumstances, the Cartier kind of pluralism would plainly not suffice; loose, open, a statement of vague general principle, it could offer no rationale for the emphasis on racial homogeneity that was increasingly admired. There was, in consequence, a discernible shift towards the sort of tighter, more focused, and clearly race-based idea of “nation” evident in the work of such commentators as George Foster, Stephen Leacock, and Andrew Macphail.

The introduction of an explicitly racial element into discussion of what constituted the nation did not, however, mean abandonment of the concept of ethnic and cultural diversity. Indeed, not the least useful aspect of the new racism’s utility derived from the fact that it permitted maintenance of the very sort of pluralism which its emphasis on exclusivity and homogeneity at first seemed to be placing at risk. Nor was much work necessary in order to take full advantage of its capacity to render this important service. All the friends of the new racism need do was draw out the line of its peculiar logic. For if that logic clearly prescribed the exclusion of those deemed racially different, it also obviously mandated the acceptance of peoples whose “otherness” could be constructed as “merely” a matter of culture and ethnicity. Paradoxically, then, adoption of the racist idea might set clear limits to what “difference” could mean, but it also permitted maintenance of a belief that some accommodation of difference had to be an element in national policy.

The manner in which race-based ideas upheld rather than weakened understandings of Canada as something other than a classical nation-state first became clear in the way that they were put to work in assisting the coexistence of French and English speakers within the same general community. Stressing the character of French speakers as a “northern” people descended from the Scandinavians who had settled Normandy, commentators – among whom poet William Wilfred Campbell was one of the most influential – gave them the same sort of lineage and descent as that of their English-speaking compatriots. Differences of language and culture became qualities that masked similarity rather than signalled divergence, and having thus been identified as matters of secondary importance, they could be permitted to exist.

That the understanding of the nation to which race-based ideas led could affirm diversity at the cultural level even as it denied it at the racial was demonstrated with particular force during the debate over Asian immigration at the turn of the century. When the federal government moved to restrict Japanese entry, it did so, not on the narrowly Anglo-conformist ground favoured by British Columbia – how could French-speaking Canadians accept a policy founded on such terrain? – but on the broad substratum of race. It was white civilization, not a particular part of it, that was threatened; this was something that all Canadians, English and French speaking, could rally to defend.

Nor was the kind of diversity permitted by race-based ideas restricted to categories of difference in evidence at Confederation. The adoption of the broad ground of race as the criterion upon which people would be judged and accepted created room for those categories to grow and multiply, and as interior minister Clifford Sifton’s pursuit of immigrants from eastern Europe plainly showed, this was precisely what they did. Adoption of the Sifton expedient made abundantly clear the double-edged way in which racist thinking operated: where in the case of Asians, that attitude had limited the range of the acceptable, as regards the eastern Europeans sought by the minister, it enlarged it. Exotic, to be sure, and frequently found wanting by those already in the country, these newcomers were nonetheless “white,” and so, by the ineluctable logic of the argument now so widely in use, they could not be excluded.

Those who accepted the claim that racist orthodoxy allowed for – even required – acceptance of cultural diversity were, of course, not prepared to see that diversity extended beyond certain clear limits. English-speaking Canadians were unwilling to allow its mutation into linguistic pluralism, and fearing that continuation of French language rights outside Quebec would complicate the task of creating a largely unilingual society, they even worked to restrict linguistic duality. French speakers, apprehensive of the tendency of the English-speaking majority to associate them with other non-English-speaking peoples and, at least outside Quebec, target them for linguistic assimilation, responded by moving to protect their language and culture through a jettisoning of Cartier’s “multiculturalism” in favour of the bilingualism and biculturalism of Henri Bourassa. But though this pattern of development showed French speakers to be on the defensive and even forced their retreat from Canada outside Quebec, French-Canadian culture and identity retained its very substantial provincial base and so continued to frustrate the designs of those thinking in terms of an homogeneous “British” Canada.

Non-English-, non-French-speaking immigrants, for all that they experienced linguistic and behavioural assimilation, also preserved a strong enough sense of their own identities to create a significant measure of institutional completeness within their communities. And given the absence of a clear Canadian type or idea to which assimilation could be urged, that sense was sufficiently potent to ensure that the assimilation which they did undergo would be more a matter of adjusting to the exigencies of daily life than of putting on the mantle of a new national persona. It thus remained necessary, as Victoria Hayward and Kate A. Foster discovered in the 1920s, for those seeking to define the nation to do so in pluralist terms. Though these terms remained severely constrained by the limits of the racist idea – John Murray Gibbon’s The Canadian Mosaic (1938) made no mention of Asians or blacks, for example – they nonetheless confirmed the fact that a credible picture of Canada could not be constructed using the tools of classical, homogenizing nationalism.