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From the archives

The Path of Poetic Resistance

To disarm Canada and its canon

Are Interests Really Value-Free?

A salvo from the “realist” school of Canadian foreign relations

Going It Alone

The marvellous, single-minded, doggedly strange passion of citizen scientists

Diversity 1.0

Three white guys walk into a policy debate

Shazia Hafiz Ramji

The Racial Mosaic: A Pre-history of Canadian Multiculturalism

Daniel R. Meister

McGill-Queen’s University Press

344 pages, hardcover, softcover, and ebook

In October 1971, in an attempt to decrease tensions between French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians, Pierre Trudeau introduced a policy that has come to stand for the right to celebrate and retain a diversity of languages, ethnic groups, and cultures. The understanding of diversity, however, was not always so expansive. With The Racial Mosaic: A Pre-history of Canadian Multiculturalism, the historian Daniel R. Meister details how Eurocentrism and even eugenics laid the groundwork for what would become a hallmark of our country’s identity.

As early as the 1920s, cultural pluralism —“the idea that immigrants to Canada should be allowed or even encouraged to retain some aspects of their cultures”— had already emerged, and it would evolve through the next decade and the Second World War. Meister explores this development with chapters that focus on the role of the press and radio and the ideological shifts that took place during wartime. But at the core of this book are three chapters about three once prominent white men: Watson Kirkconnell, an academic and translator; Robert England, an Irish immigrant and teacher; and John Murray Gibbon, an Oxford-educated Scot and the author of Canadian Mosaic, the 1938 publication that popularized the now ubiquitous metaphor.

Critics might scoff at the lack of diversity in a work about multiculturalism — a complaint Meister anticipates. The men profiled “were not only some of the earliest cultural pluralists,” he explains, “but also some of the most successful.” With their numerous influential publications, Kirkconnell, England, and Gibbon earned reputations as “experts on race and immigration.” At the start of the war, for instance, government officials sought their advice “to help craft programs designed to promote national unity”— an undertaking that necessitated “paying attention to ethnic minorities.”

To explain the impact these men had on cultural policy, Meister sketches a biography of each, beginning with Watson Kirkconnell. The “fourth generation Anglo-Canadian,” as he called himself, was born in 1895 in Port Hope. His Scottish ancestors had come to southern Ontario via Quebec as part of a wave of colonists arriving around the time of the War of 1812. “A spokesperson for the Mississauga complained about the Europeans who had settled in their Islands and cut great quantities of timber without consent,” Meister writes of the period, compressing swaths of time with succinct pacing and vivid detail that general readers, scholars, and creative writers alike will appreciate.

Before the Maple Leaf’s colours turned.

Jamie Bennett

Such historical details also elucidate the inconsistencies in Kirkconnell’s life and thought. For instance, when readers learn that he depicted Indigenous groups as “belonging to an extinct people, despite his friendship with the very much alive Chief Paudash,” they won’t be surprised: Meister has already outlined settler colonialism’s strategies of “population replacement,” which a growing number of scholars consider a form of genocide. Other dissonances can be found in Kirkconnell’s personal life. He suffered from chronic health issues but continued to promote eugenicist ideas: propagation of people like himself and “wholesale sterilization of the unfit.” Meister writes that Kirkconnell saw the real threat to Anglo-Saxon supremacy as “race suicide, or the phenomenon of Anglo-Saxons voluntarily having fewer children.”

With the death of his wife in 1925, Kirkconnell turned his energies toward translating elegiac verse in many European languages. The project was meant to be “an anodyne,” he said, but it soon became “an instrument of deliverance and revelation.” The poems gave him an appreciation for the cultural accomplishments of other white races and induced a shift in his views. “This was the moment for Kirkconnell,” Meister writes, “when whiteness was consolidated” — a development that was foundational for the acceptance and integration of European immigrants who were not Anglo-Saxon.

Robert England, born just a year before Kirkconnell, warmed to the idea of limited cultural pluralism somewhat earlier than his Canadian compatriot. The Irish immigrant had crossed the pond in 1914 and worked in a variety of jobs in Saskatchewan before enlisting in the armed forces. During the First World War, England “fought side-by-side” with men “of various ethnicities.” The experience taught him, he wrote, “that no race has a monopoly of courage and no race has a monopoly of civic virtue.”

After the war, England enrolled in distance learning courses at Queen’s University and read the latest works on education and immigration. Eventually he took up teaching in rural Saskatchewan, where the majority of his students spoke Ukrainian rather than English. According to Meister, England’s “most important” and influential opinion was “that educating so-called new Canadians was ‘a vital part of that greater work of internationalizing the world.’ ”

But England, too, was full of contradictions. He supported racist policies such as the Continuous Journey Act, which effectively restricted immigration from India and Japan, and the Chinese head tax. Despite his recognition of cultural difference, he saw assimilation as necessary for citizenship, which, as Meister points out, “required the adoption of the English language and subservience to the Anglo-Canadian legal and educational systems.” And in his research paper “The Contribution of Rural Minded Peoples to Railway and National Development,” England noted that he had simply ignored “the negro population,” in essence erasing their presence.

The oldest of the three men, John Murray Gibbon, was born in 1875 and grew up in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) with his Scottish father and a “Singhalese ayah or nurse called Babahamy,” whom he recalled fondly in his memoirs. (Meister reproduces an arresting full-page photograph of Babahamy holding the boy.) As a young man, Gibbon went on to study at Oxford and eventually found employment as an advertising agent for the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1907. With its sponsorship, he organized multi-ethnic folk festivals to celebrate the various (mostly European) backgrounds of new Canadians. Even such “limited pluralism” was daring at the time. Gibbon’s project proved successful, however, and ran until 1931, at which point he transitioned to radio broadcasting. Seven years later, the CBC aired his show Canadian Mosaic: Songs of Many Races, a kind of “sequel to the festivals” that was so popular it was eventually picked up by the publishers John McClelland and George Stewart and turned into an illustrated book.

To distinguish the Canadian brand of national unity from the “melting pot” of the United States, Gibbon borrowed the mosaic metaphor from the American travel writer Victoria Hayward, who used it in 1922 to refer not to people but to the landscape of Canada’s prairies. Kate A. Foster, a Canadian author, had also employed the term in a 1926 survey of “New Canadians.” But it was Gibbon’s work that received nationwide acclaim (and a Governor General’s Literary Award). A press report at the time praised the book for “its compelling human interest” and called it “an important contribution to the solution of a vital national problem — the problem of Canadian unity.”

Despite its merits, Canadian Mosaic “openly assumed the erasure of Indigenous cultures and called for a careful arrangement and even outright construction of the individual European cultures that made up the whole.” Gibbon’s story is the most fascinating of the three gathered here because he used his vision of Canada to connect with European audiences and offer them a (prescribed) place in the Canadian narrative. “If you can weave a good story around it,” he once said, “you can sell anything.”

Meister takes a historical-biographical approach to his subjects, but his book also provides a useful model for understanding our present moment. Multiculturalism is sometimes presented as a fait accompli, as if Canada were a country “where diverse peoples have lived in peace and harmony since time immemorial.” On the contrary, he insists:

Canada’s struggle with discrimination and racism, both historical and contemporary, is hidden from sight. But now more than ever, in this age of resurgent racism and xenophobia, Canadians must not slip into complacency by pretending that the country is immune to such forces.

Diversity and inclusion initiatives across institutions are now calling for a re-examination of multiculturalism and the limits of race representation. Those leading the charge would do well to consider Meister’s insights into the fabrication of Canada’s “mosaic.”

Shazia Hafiz Ramji divides her time between Vancouver, Calgary, and London, where she’s working on a novel.