Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canadians are tolerant... to a point

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Quebec Premier-elect Pauline Marois has vowed that the Parti Québécois will pass a "Charter of Secularism" that would bar any public employee from wearing a "conspicuous religious sign"-- Jewish kippahs or skullcaps and Muslim headscarves, for instance. The one exception is the wearing of a crucifix since Christianity and crosses, such as the large one which hangs in the Quebec National Assembly, are ingrained symbols of Quebec's history and culture. She would also prohibit non-French speakers, who currently do not reside in Quebec, from holding public office. Finally she intends to further limit the rights of anglophone parents and students. Pierre Trudeau was right: the xenophobic "distinct society" he warned about in the early 1990s has showed its true colours.

There are nearly 1,500 incidents of anti-Semitism reported in Canada, and prejudice and discrimination against visible minorities, aboriginal Canadians, gays and women are constantly in the news.

Canadians like to believe they are most tolerant people on Earth and always have been so.

Nothing could be further from the truth. From the 1850s onward, and especially after thousands of European immigrants from non-British and non-English-speaking countries arrived in Canada between 1897 and 1913, there was widespread fear the country's British core values -- white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant -- were under threat. This was despite the fact non-British immigrants were a tiny minority.

In 1916, for example, 67 per cent of Winnipeg's population of 163,000 was of British origin. If you factor in immigrants from "acceptable" countries such as Scandinavia, Iceland, Germany and Holland, the percentage rises to 74.5. Yet the high visibility of Russian, Eastern European, Italian, Jewish, and Asian immigrants -- their strange languages, exotic food, dress and customs, as well as their poverty and the deplorable manner in which they lived in the city's North End -- made them seem frightening, even dangerous.

"Foreign trash," "heathens," "vermin," "indolent social parasites" and "foreign scum" -- were just a few of the ways newcomers were disapprovingly portrayed in speeches, government documents, and newspaper and magazine articles. Typical was George Chipman, a middle-class journalist and a supporter of Nellie McClung. "The morality of the immigrant from continental Europe is thrown into sharp relief in the courts of justice," he wrote in a 1909 magazine article about Winnipeg. "They have not the Canadian regard for life, liberty and sanitary surroundings, and have to be regulated accordingly."

Even the saintliest of Winnipeg politicians, J.S. Woodsworth, a prominent social reformer and labour advocate, while welcoming the "strangers within our gates" ranked each ethnic group according to how well he judged they could assimilate to so-called Canadian values. Naturally enough, at the top were British, Scandinavian, and German immigrants, and at the bottom were Jews, Italians, blacks and Asians.

Public schools were strategically used to anglicize immigrant children, who were punished for speaking a foreign language. But even when immigrants transformed themselves into Canadians, they were still not truly acceptable. Quotas at universities, discriminatory property covenants, and prejudiced club membership rules ensured newcomers would be kept at a discreet distance.

The diary of William Lyon Mackenzie King, prime minister of Canada for much of the mid-20th century, reflects the majority views of the day in which the concept of race was paramount. King referred to African-Americans and African-Canadians as "darkies" and was generally suspicious Jews were up to no good.

Bowing to cabinet pressure and to anti-Semitism in Quebec in the 1930s, he refused to allow Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany into the country when his own conscience told him it was the right thing to do.

In the diary entry following the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945, King wrote that while he regretted the bombing, it was "fortunate" that it was used on the Japanese "rather than the white races of Europe."

After the Second World War, when the true extent of racism was revealed in the Holocaust, the situation started to change, though very gradually. King promised post-war immigration policies would preserve the "fundamental character" of Canada as he and others defined it. In a well-known poll conducted in 1946 to determine Canadians' choice for desirable immigrants, Japanese and Jews were rated most negatively.

Governments passed human rights legislation banning discrimination and embraced multiculturalism. Attitudes did change, making the type of day-to-day prejudice from King's day no longer tolerated -- at least in public. Still, hateful actions and behaviour remains in Canada to the present time. Maybe this will always be so.

A comprehensive review undertaken for the federal government analyzing more than a dozen opinion polls done between 2005 and 2010 determining Canadians' attitudes to multiculturalism, diversity and immigration showed that while there is a high support for immigration and diversity, "there is also consistent and relatively strong support for a certain degree of assimilation."

Asked what should be Canada's main aim in dealing with newcomers, 57 per cent of the respondents in several polls chose the answer: "To encourage minority groups to try to change to be more like most Canadians."

In other words, Folklorama and other such events are fine, provided that these ethnic groups do not try to stress their alleged "non-Canadian" identities too much. In recent years, Muslim Canadians, who might dress differently and practise their religion with more zeal than a majority of Canadians, have particularly suffered from this dichotomy in our national character.

"We welcome you to our land. You are free to pray, dress and eat as you like, as long as you do it like a good Canadian would."

Sounds a lot like something J.S. Woodsworth would have said in 1909.

Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in an historical context.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 10, 2012 A10

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