Group Maintenance and Ethnic Commitment

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Germans/Gerhard Bassler

Statistics on ethnic origin from the censuses suggest not only that German Canadians have been the third-largest ethnic group of European origin since 1871 but that their share of the population has increased from 7 percent in 1871 to 10 percent in 1991. These inferences are correct only if the group’s internal boundaries are defined as congruent with those census respondents able or willing to acknowledge German descent, regardless of their actual commitment to German culture and the German-Canadian community. That means, for example, the inclusion until 1971 of Canadians acknowledging one German-speaking ancestor among a possibly diverse ancestry in the male line of descent. (After 1981, indication of more than one ethnic ancestry was permitted.) It also implies the inclusion of an unascertainable proportion of Austrians, Swiss, and Mennonites, even when separate categories for such origins are available. Further, it means the exclusion of those of matrilineal descent until 1981, as well as those confused about their German origin or refusing to acknowledge it. (See also AUSTRIANS; MENNONITES; SWISS.)

The extent of ethnic commitment and the maintenance of culture becomes evident in sociological inquiries. These have revealed that only Scandinavian and Dutch immigrants equal Germans in the proportion and speed with which they abandon their mother tongue and ethnic identity. A 1976 survey of ten ethnic groups in five urban centres found that 35 percent of first-generation German immigrants identified themselves as Canadian, 49 percent as German Canadian or Canadian of German origin, and only 10 percent as German. In the second generation, the percentages were 68, 15, and 12, and in the third generation 80, 16, and 0.

In a study in 1974, 32 percent of German-speaking immigrants (compared with 13 percent of Italians) were observed speaking English at home six months after their arrival. Of these, 52 percent indicated “good” or “perfect” knowledge of the language. At the same time, it was noted that the use of German as the language of the home among first-generation German Canadians in Edmonton, Toronto, and Montreal dropped to between 31 and 43 percent. Recent census data confirm that German Canadians have been abandoning their mother tongue at a rate (62 percent in 1971) surpassed only by Scandinavian, Dutch, Flemish, and Gaelic-speaking immigrants. (See Tables 2, 3, and 4.)

What seems striking about these findings is not so much the immigrants’ ease of integration and acquisition of English as the rapid loss of their cultural and linguistic identity. The tendency since the seventeenth century of German-speaking settlers in Canada to integrate relatively easily into the host society is a well-established fact. In 1912 the editor of Der Nordwestern asserted that “no other nationality learns English as rapidly as the Germans,” yet he also agreed with J.S. Woodsworth that the German Canadian “maintains allegiance to his language and to the traditions of his forefathers.” Interestingly, German communities that preserved their mother tongue, values, and traditions for generations in the east European diaspora have failed to do so in Canada. Frequently the product of recent secondary migrations, their members arrived in Canada with divided allegiances to their lands and cultures of origin and hence a weak, if any, national consciousness. Their process of linguistic assimilation has been accelerated by the so-called double loss of prestige. That is, they suffered not only from the low prestige of German in comparison with Canada’s official languages but also from having a dialect as their mother tongue and hence an inferiority complex about their difficulties communicating in High German. Except for the Mennonites and Hutterites, they often assimilated more rapidly than natives of Germany.

The speedy acculturation of the post-war immigrants may be attributed to the coincidence of stigmatization about the Third Reich with the increased urbanization of both the source and receiving societies. Negative stereotyping has been a major community concern since 1951. Although sociological surveys suggested that in Canada the Germans’ traditionally positive image quickly reasserted itself over war-related resentment, to many Canadians the word “German” had become synonymous with Naziism, militarism, racism, anti-Semitism, and genocide. The desire to be invisible was noted in 1964 by Maclean’s Magazine, which under the title “the untroublesome Canadians” portrayed the country’s “third great racial strain” as being “almost painfully unassertive.”

The deconstruction of German ethnicity is in part also a function of the increased urbanization conditioning the post-war immigrants’ socio-economic profile and hence their adaptive behaviour. This observation is verifiable in patterns of settlement, upward mobility, standard of living, career aspirations, and language change. Unlike the earlier German arrivals, the post–World War II immigrants entered all levels of the Canadian economy. No longer drawn to the rural settlements in central and western Canada or to existing urban neighbourhoods, they moved to the expanding suburbs, where they exhibited the lowest degree of residential clustering among major immigrant groups. Better educated, industrially skilled, and eager to succeed economically, they were also more upwardly mobile.

Their employment levels and high average income have not, however, translated into social prestige. National ratings by anglophone Canadians of the social standing of thirteen and thirty-two ethnic groups in 1978 and 1987 respectively ranked Germans in the middle of the scale. Surveys have also shown that retention of the mother tongue, the preservation of ethnic traditions, and the tendency to marry within the group decreased with greater education, higher income, and socio-economic status.

The continued use of German in the home is primarily based on parental attitudes, of which endogamy is perhaps the most crucial variable. According to the 1931 census, four-fifths of German males in the prairie provinces were married to German females, while in British Columbia this characteristic was true of only half the population. The difference may be attributable to the existence of larger, more homogeneous ethnic and religious communities in the prairies. As a result, the rate of retention of the mother tongue was high (76 percent) among western Canadians of German origin. In the 1941 census a 53 percent rate of retention may be correlated to a 58 percent endogamy rate. Between 1951 and 1971, about half of German-origin males and females were reported to have married partners of a non-German, mostly British, origin. But for Canadian-born family heads of German origin, marriage outside the community was as high as 62 percent in 1971.

There seem to be exceptions to this trend as a result of concentrations of recent immigrants and the nature of the sample: in Ontario and Toronto, endogamy rates of 81 and 76 percent respectively were measured in 1981 among German immigrants. In Edmonton a 1985 survey found endogamy rates among ethnic German female immigrants as high as 96.2 percent, while for those from Germany the proportion was 61.4 percent. Surveys ascertained that virtually none of the parents in ethnically mixed marriages spoke German at home. The children of these marriages, although they learned German in a heritage language school, never spoke the language at home.

For German post-war immigrants, English was the language of social and economic advance. Several postwar inquiries into the reasons for Saturday school attendance found that most parents who considered retention of German desirable were motivated to send their children to such schools primarily by the prospect of socio-economic benefits and only 13 percent by the desire to maintain customs and traditions. Women, in particular, even when they no longer spoke German at home, supported Saturday school and insisted that their children attend.

Although two out of three German Canadians surveyed favoured retention of the ancestral language, this belief has not translated into practice. A 1975 survey found that the percentage of fluency among Canadians of German origin declined from 78 in the first generation to 4.6 in the second and to 0.0 by the third. However, two-thirds claimed to have retained some knowledge in the second generation and 27 percent in the third. Between 1971 to 1991 the census recorded an overall decline of 32 percent in German as the language spoken at home. Denominationally structured, segregated, and institutionally complete rural enclaves have traditionally provided the most supportive contexts for language maintenance. In 1972, for example, actual use varied from Hutterites with 100 percent to Mennonites with 69 percent and Catholics with 29 percent. A 1985 inquiry, however, revealed that even Canadian Mennonites were abandoning the use of German in church services.

Language is only one, and not always the most important, constituent of ethnic identity, and its loss is not necessarily an indicator of assimilation. Which, if any, external or internal characteristics of German-Canadian ethnic identity endure or are revived in the third generation? A 1979 survey of three generations of nine ethnic groups in Toronto inquired into this issue. In all respects but one, Germans were found to have the lowest overall ethnic retention by the third generation. They were least exclusive in their friendships, had the lowest rate of participation in ethnic functions, and showed the least interest in ethnic media from the second generation on. Theirs was the only group whose third generation seldom ate ethnic food and that exhibited a sharp decline in the practice of traditional customs from the second to the third generation. By that time they had the least degree of ethnic identity: only 0.7 percent had attended German school. The importance of ethnicity in the socialization process dropped sharply from the second to the third generation, and members of the group did not care about parental approval of dating from the first generation. Ethnic rediscovery in the third generation happened only when the respondent agreed that it was important to have a job benefiting both the third-generation Canadian of German origin and the German-Canadian group.

Commentators in the German media have reacted with alarm at the undue haste with which the post-war immigrants jettisoned their mother tongue and identity. Why were these immigrants incapable of constituting an ethno-political lobby commensurate with their large numbers? Why could they not form communities in regions where they had settled in such concentrations that the development of a distinctive German-Canadian culture required only their interest? Was not this development ironic in a nation that rejected the ideal of the melting pot in favour of the cultural mosaic?

Reputed to be a disappearing minority, German Canadians have became the most invisible citizens of non-British descent, often distinguishable from others only by their names. But successful external adaptation has not necessarily affected their private sphere, some surveys have discovered. Outwardly, German Canadians displayed a “remarkable ability to merge with Canadian society as a whole,” according to Maclean’s Magazine in 1964.

Two decades later German-Swiss linguist Beatrice Stadler concluded that “German-speaking immigrants, equipped with skill, education, and motivation to succeed, have ‘played the game’ according to Canadian ‘rules’ and ‘won.’”