We are all Canadian; past, present and future
By Jon Malek
As I write, I am in the middle of what PhD students refer to with dread as “comps.” This is a gruelling series of exams involving well over a hundred books and articles (in my case at least) to prove to our colleagues that we do in fact know a thing or two. It is a rite-of-passage, in a way. When my friends or family ask how I am doing, my response for the last few months has been a sigh and one word: “Comps.”
As part of this examination process, I have read quite a few books and articles on the history of Asians in Canada. Canada has long been portrayed as a “White settler country,” one whose foundations lay in the presence and work of White, European Canadians. Of course, while the city of Quebec, established by French settlers in 1608, is one of the oldest cities in North America, and Europeans have lived in what is now called Canada for over 400 years, these are not the only stories that our nation represents. First and foremost, the Aboriginal population of Canada should never be forgotten. Not only does their own history significantly pre-date Canada’s, but also their contributions to the country has been as overlooked as the existence of their own nationhood.
Secondly, the way that Canadian history is commonly told suggests that Canada is an “Atlantic World” nation. That is, our own history has been presented as an extension of those countries that have crossed the Atlantic Ocean over the last few centuries. However, seeing Canada’s history as part of an Atlantic history is not entirely correct. What about those who have crossed the Pacific Ocean? How much are people of Asian descent part of Canada’s foundation story? Today, Canada’s top three sources of immigration come from Asia: the Philippines, China, and India. It is true that immigration from Asian countries dramatically increased after the 1960s following reforms to Canada’s immigration policy, but Asians were living in and helping to build Canada well before that time.
For instance, it is not very well known that Chinese have lived and worked along Canada’s West Coast since 1858, the same year that British Columbia became part of colonial British Canada (a term referring to Canada before Confederation in 1867). Canada’s immigration policy during this time preferred immigration from Europe and made it very difficult for people from Asian countries to come. Despite these hardships, people of Asian descent have been living in Canadian territory since before Canada became a country! Chinese, Japanese, and South Asians worked alongside immigrants from European countries to build much of early Canada, including Canada’s railway and West Coast mining and fishery industries. Yet, these stories do not seem to make it into popular Canadian memory. Henry Yu, a historian from the University of British Columbia, has referred to this history as “Pacific Canada,” pointing out that immigration from the Pacific has contributed to Canada as much as Atlantic immigration has.
Today, this is especially true. The Filipino community in Winnipeg has been increasingly recognized as a key part of Winnipeg in the media over the past few years. For those who did not already know, Filipino is one of the most spoken non-official (English or French) languages in Winnipeg, with 1 in 20 able to speak this language. There is value in recognizing the contributions of all members of society, even those who are only in Canada temporarily. For instance, much of the hog industry in rural Manitoba is run by the hard work of temporary Filipino workers. They contribute to the success of our country as much as others who do similar work and, in my opinion, all deserve recognition.
Canada from its beginnings has been a multicultural and multiethnic place. It was never just White/European. It’s about time that our popular history recognizes, embraces, and celebrates this variety that has gone into the creation of Canada and that continues to drive it forward.
My heart and prayers go out to those affected by the recent Yolanda calamity. I am with the community in solidarity.
Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and an alumnus of the University of Manitoba (B.A., M.A. in History). As part of his research project on the history of Filipinos in Winnipeg, Jon would be happy to talk to members of the community about their life experiences. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.