Canada’s much-vaunted policy of multiculturalism has been the object of a good deal criticism in recent years, much of it coming from the very immigrant groups it was intended to support. Increasingly the perception is that the policy has merely tended to reinforce the ghettoization of ethnic cultures by segregating them from the mainstream and turning them in on themselves. But what is often missing in the discussion of multiculturalism is a concerted analysis of the very notion of ethnic identity. Too often ethnicity is taken as a given, as some essence that immigrants carry within them on their arrival here; I would argue instead that what we commonly regard as ethnic identity cannot be understood outside the context of the immigration process itself and of the cultural forces it sets in motion, and that only through an analysis of these forces we can begin to move beyond a definition of immigrant cultures that tends to exclude them from the mainstream even while it claims to valorize them.
Cultural ghettoization has its apt correlative in the physical ghettoization that the term draws its informing metaphor from; not surprisingly, there are obvious similarities in the processes by which the two come about. Immigrant neighbourhoods have long been a part of the Canadian urban landscape, `ghettos’ in the sense that they have served to exclude from the host culture groups that have seemed to form a threat to it; but they have also served the immigrant groups in providing for them a space where they have been free, in a sense, to be different. In this complicity it becomes difficult to say which force plays the greater role, the exclusionary impulse of the host culture or the self-protective one of the immigrants themselves. That such ghettos have persisted in some form long after the most obvious exclusionary forces of the host culture have been mitigated–its overt hostility, its economic superiority–suggests that the immigrant groups have in some sense chosen to remain apart, have preferred cultural distinction over assimilation.
Yet the cultural distinction thus guarded is in a sense defined through the very act of guarding itself. In the case of the first groups of Italians arriving in Toronto at the beginning of century, for instance–I use the Italian community as an example because it is familiar to me, though I think a similar analysis would apply to other immigrant communities–the primary loyalties were not to any shared sense of Italianness, as Robert Harney and others have shown, but to family, to hometown, and to region; what solidarity did arise was largely the result of the unifying forces brought about by immigration itself, the Italian offices and shops that settlements formed around, the common places of worship and work, the sense of common interest fostered by discrimination.
Part of attraction of Fascism to Italian Canadians before World War II was exactly in its providing them a source of cultural pride as a counter to negative stereotypes.
But in moving toward greater solidarity, immigrants were in part simply assuming the very homogeneity the host culture applied to them when discriminating against them. Part of attraction of Fascism to Italian Canadians before World War II–and it is important to note that Fascism was seen as a very respectable ideology by much of the Canadian establishment until well into the 1930s–was exactly in its providing them a source of cultural pride as a counter to negative stereotypes; but the sense of shared Italianness Fascism fostered in them was thus perhaps not so much a nostalgic hearkening back to cultural roots as a new form of self-definition assumed in response to the experience of discrimination and cultural disorientation.
Similar patterns can be seen among post-war Italian immigrants in Toronto. There has remained sufficient consistency in choices of settlement area, for instance, to suggest that a conscious affiliation with the Italian community as a whole is a factor in those choices; and that affiliation is reflected as well in the increasingly similar styles of Italian homes, from the baroque embellishments added on to older homes in established neighbourhoods to the greater ostentation and size of new homes further north. What is interesting about this style–which significantly did not begin to develop until the early 1960s, when Italians had begun to come into their own and discrimination against them had begun to abate–is that it adds to a basic North American style embellishments that seem to draw their inspiration less from the domestic archictecture of Italy than from its public one, that of its monuments and churches; in a sense it seems to serve much the same function as Fascism served in the 1930s, intended not so much as a recapturing of the familiar as a public declaration of Italianness and of Italian achievement to an initially hostile host culture.
But what the sense of Italianness so expressed amounts to in real terms is hard to assess. While the vast majority of Italians surveyed in a 1985 Toronto Star study said they thought the Italian community in Toronto was a close-knit one, many also claimed they felt little in common with Italians who had come from other parts of Italy; and while the post-war period has seen a movement, as before the war, toward a greater institutional cohesion, with the formation of pan-Italian organizations such as the National Congress of Italian Canadians, a survey conducted in 1977 by the then newly-formed Congress found that 69 per cent of the respondents belonged to no Italian-Canadian organization at all. These discrepancies suggest a kind of double identity, a private one that holds to the claims of specificity and diversity, and a public one that stresses ethnic solidarity. As a result, what is often regarded by the larger society as the community’s `ethnicity’ is not so much the reflection of its true cultural complexity and flux or even of some original culture imported from the homeland as of the symbols of solidarity and homogeneity created as the community evolves a public persona in response to the experience of immigration.
Inevitably this homogenizing definition of ethnic culture becomes internalized by the community itself. The Congress of Italian Canadians sets out among its aims those of fostering `the retention among Italian Canadians of their rich cultural heritage’ and of interpreting `the attributes of their heritage to fellow Canadians.’ These two objectives seem the codification, albeit in somewhat august terms, of the process by which ethnic identity is formed in individuals: the constitution of oneself as sharing the attributes of a distinct cultural group so that those attributes then become the ones by which one defines oneself to and against another culture. The process seems a fluid one, involving both the evaluations, often negative or stereotypical, that a host culture imposes on an immigrant group, and the reaction of that group in internalizing, reinterpreting, or revising those evaluations; but the result, I think, is that a new entity is created, an ethnic culture that exists not so much from any intrinsic or inevitable coherence as by its definition against the host culture, much as the immigrant ghetto is constituted as a space of cultural homogeneity only by its segregation and difference from surrounding neighbourhoods. Given the diversity of origins and experience of members of an immigrant group, we should no more expect solidarity among them in Canada than we would in their homeland; yet the effect of ethnicization is exactly to create that expectation of solidarity that itself then reinforces the process of ethnicization. Also furthering the process is the implicit rivalry among different immigrant groups, each undergoing its own evolution, each vying for recognition of its unique contribution, that rivalry perhaps mitigating conflicts within the groups themselves that might arise from differences of class, region, religion, and so on.
One of the obvious benefits of ethnic solidarity, of course, is the political voice it has given to immigrant groups; and no doubt the growing force these groups represented was a factor in the creation of the policy of multiculturalism in Canada in the early 1970s. It would be a mistake, though, to regard this policy as a simple capitulation to immigrant groups; more work needs to be done both in examining the context the policy grew out of and what relationship the definition of immigrant groups it enunciated bears to previous definitions. Michel Foucault, in examining marginalized groups–criminals, the insane, homosexuals–has shown how these groups are often in effect created as distinct entities by the codification of discourses or fields of knowledge that then constitute these groups as their objects; perhaps a similar sort of analysis could apply in relation to the role of the discourse of immigration in the evolution of ethnic identity in Canada, with the policy of multiculturalism seen as a significant moment in that discourse. It would be interesting, for instance, to chart the point at which pioneers and settlers gave way to immigrants, to look at the distinctions made in official policy between northern and southern Europeans and how those distinctions affected both the reception of those groups and their subsequent self-definition, to examine the changing roles that immigration has been seen to play, from territorial expansion to the provision of cheap labour to economic and cultural enrichment; no doubt a portrait would then emerge in which the policy of multiculturalism could be understood not as the enlightened or expedient recognition of the role of immigrant communities in Canadian society but as a further refinement in an ongoing discourse that in itself has in some sense determined the shape of the cultures it now agrees to recognize.
Ostensibly the intent of the policy of multiculturalism was to help provide a platform from which minority cultures that had been traditionally excluded from the mainstream could speak; but the question here is less one of intention than of function, of how, filtered through the existing discourses of culture, the policy has tended to play itself out. Certainly from a Foucauldian perspective one ought to be suspicious of a policy that grows out of a discourse that created the very terms and conditions of an imbalance that that policy now claims to redress; and increasingly the perception is that multiculturalism is merely more of the same, the cultural offshoot, in a sense, of the immigrant ghetto, institutionalizing minority cultures as a way of relegating them once again to the margins. Critics of the policy have noted that for it to provide truly equitable treatment to minorities, then all cultural enterprises, including the Canada Council and the CBC, would have to fall within its guidelines; as it is the implication remains that the French and English cultures, nowhere mentioned in official multicultural policy, exist somehow outside it and thus constitute the country’s real, true cultures beside which ethnic cultures are merely folkloric sideshows. The ethnic ghetto has ceased to be merely an eyesore, a threat, has become instead a curiosity; but its walls have remained intact. There has been a flourishing of festivals, of different language newspapers and television stations, of multicultural literary presses, of heritage programsw; yet many of these initiatives end up directed at or accessible to only the communities they grow out of, thus reinforcing ethnic identification without fostering any sense of participation in a larger cultural enterprise that cuts across ethnic boundaries.
There is always a chasm, of course, between official policy and actual practice, and it would be wrong to imagine the ghettoization of immigrant cultures as somehow legislated by government policy; yet if, as I suggest, that policy is seen as a moment in an ongoing discourse, then it can be understood not strictly in its legislative aspect but as a restatement and refinement of a certain already-existing power relationship between margin and centre that has always had the effect of limiting the impact of minority cultures on the dominant one. Again, I think we are speaking here of a very fluid process, of a complicity, as in the formation of immigrant ghettos, with the dominant culture’s tendency to marginalize and exclude matched by the minority one’s tendency to band together and seek a self-sufficiency; but the result remains a restrictive and neutralizing definition of ethnic cultures, first that they are somehow self-contained and homogeneous and second that their major function is to preserve a past heritage. Eventually such a definition circles back on itself: a sense of homogeneity suggests a common cultural heritage to be preserved, and the act of preservation in turn reinforces a sense of homogeneity.
The implication of this definition, with its emphasis on separateness rather than commonality and with its privileging of the past over the present and of repetition over innovation, is that immigrant cultures somehow exist outside the normal flux of the larger society and are thus irrelevant to that society. Yet what is most interesting in these cultures is not their supposed insular perpetuation of the cultures of the immigrants’ home countries but exactly how they are informed, in all their complexities and ambiguities, by their new context. In fact, often those features that immigrants themselves cling to as the essential ones of their culture–language, religious observances, family relations, food habits–either are holdovers from a culture that their countries of origin have evolved beyond, or have themselves evolved through contact with North American culture, or draw from a `high’ culture alien to the immigrants’ own backgrounds; and to see in them simply some recaptured primordial ethnicity would be to obscure their most significant aspect, which is not that they are preservative but that they are a particular response to the demands of acculturating to a new environment. A truly informed notion of immigrant culture would need to focus, then, not so much on the isolated entities immigrant communities have been seen to form as on the interplay of forces that determines the shapes these communities take. Seen in this light the question of ethnicity becomes less one of essence than of strategy, with the crucial sites of analysis no longer the separate bits of Canada’s much-vaunted mosaic but the crevices between.
That mosaic has perhaps long been merely a palliative, a convenient myth, if only because of the increasing assimilation of second and third generation descendants of immigrants; no doubt the struggle to preserve cultural heritage has gathered force in recent years exactly from the threat of the eventual homogenizing of Canadian society. Yet we may be at a point now where immigrant and other minority cultures can assert a decisive influence as to what form some future more inclusive notion of Canadian culture might take. The policy of multiculturalism, intended as a blueprint for that future shape, has in many respects fallen short; but in providing at least a level of official sanction to groups previously almost wholly disenfranchised, it has allowed us to pass through what was perhaps a necessary transitional phase, has provided a reference point from which dissension and debate have been able to take shape. The next phase might move us toward what writer Janice Kulyk Keefer has called a kaleidoscope rather than a mosaic culture or what Lamberto Tassinari, editor of the trilingual journal Vice Versa, has called transculturalism, the breaking down of ethnic barriers through cultural evolution and exchange to arrive at a new concept of culture that includes rather than ghettoizes. Perhaps that would bring us to a sort of de-ethnicization, a situation in which `ethnicity’ was understood not as a defining essence but as a social construct, a certain organization of power relationships for managing cultural diversity.
In Toronto several years ago the municipality put up street signs on various major thoroughfares designating the neighbourhoods they passed through, Chinatown, the Fashion District, Portugal Village, the Annex. Ironically, the area designated Little Italy no longer houses many Italians, most of them having migrated further north, is mainly the site now of more recent immigrants, Portuguese, Korean, West Indian, Greek, and of the students, artists, and young professionals who inevitably follow in the immigrants’ wake. There is a strange nostalgia in the designation, even the various espresso bars and Italian ice cream parlours that still line the main street there seeming themselves merely a conforming to type, later additions to an immigrant culture that they were perhaps never an essential part of but for which they now form the metonymic representation; in a sense the area’s recent history is effaced in the attempt to recapture its past, the same forces that create the retrospective ethnicizing cultures of immigrants seeming to operate now in relation to Toronto’s history, with a past that was once a source of irritation now reclaimed as quaint, folkloric, while the present, with its diversity and flux, its intermingling, remains unacknowledged. But perhaps instead of casting back we should be looking a little more closely at that present reality, might find there a truer portrait of what we are.
© 1992, 2003 Nino Ricci. Reproduction or use without the author’s written consent is prohibited by law.
First published in Alphabet City, No. 2, 1992.What did you learn in school today? Sharing.