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Group Maintenance and Ethnic Commitment

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Spaniards/

The first immigrants who arrived encountered a society, way of life, and physical climate very different from their own. Moreover, with the exception of those who came as part of the three organized expeditions, the vast majority found themselves alone. Their geographic isolation and the small number of Spaniards in the country permitted only sporadic occasions for solidarity, and these were different from what a larger community, with its own set of institutions, could offer. The sense of belonging to a distinct ethnic group resulted from the shock of dealing with Canadian society and homesickness for Spain or one’s own native region. These early and poorly documented years of the Spanish experience were characterized by the difficulties of assimilation, lack of knowledge of the official languages, and the rejection – blatant or more subtle – by a society that described itself as exclusively British or French.

In these circumstances, the maintenance of the group and its culture could take place only within the narrow confines of the family or a small group of friends and kin who lived and worked nearby. The family became the focal point for the maintenance of Spanish identity. More than half of the immigrants who came were married; others returned to Spain to find a wife; while still others found their spouse here among Spaniards, Latin Americans, or Canadians.

Although the increase of Spanish immigration in the 1960s and 1970s led to the creation of various associations and recreational groups, these organizations have remained secondary to family as the primary vehicle for group maintenance. This is one of the reasons for the low level of participation in the activities of these groups.

It is in the family where Spanish Canadians have preserved their language, their cuisine, and their particular and complex relationship to the Roman Catholic Church, as well as to their regional identities. At the same time, the family has produced two, or even three, generations who share many of these identities and loyalties but who also hold other, different ones. These Spanish Canadians have been able to respect their ethnic origins at the same time as they entered into the dominant society of the country and – with their parents’ help – seized the opportunities it offered.

After at least two decades in Canada, Spanish immigrants have become integrated into Canadian society; that is, they are generally satisfied with their lives here and do not feel that they are materially disadvantaged in comparison to other Canadians. This was facilitated by the available language and training programs for immigrants. A study of Spaniards living in Toronto in the mid-1980s showed 78 percent had enrolled in such programs, 40 percent of whom were women. Marriage also contributed to assimilation. The same study indicated that one-third married Canadians of other ethnic backgrounds.

Overall, Spaniards express a high degree of satisfaction with their life in Canada and with their ability to integrate into Canadian society. This was the conclusion of a Toronto study and of a survey carried out in Ottawa in the 1980s. This showed that 83 percent (of a small population) were very satisfied with their life in Canada while none claimed to be extremely dissatisfied. It also showed that while their vision of Spain was sometimes coloured by a number of stereotypes or myths they generally saw the ancestral homeland as a country which closely resembles Canada, both in its standard of living and in the social problems it faces. Many would like to return and some plan to do so when they retire, but all know that this would pose a significant rupture in their lives, and especially in the lives of their children who, for all their pride in being Spaniards, consider themselves Canadian and want to live in Canada.