February 02, 2002



With all due respect to the estimable Steven Den Beste, his most recent in his polemic series on why American government is better shows a surprising lack of knowledge about North American immigration and ethnicity patterns.

And none of Canada, Australia or New Zealand had the kind of ethnic mix that the United States had by 1910, nor have any of them ever permitted the kind of free flow of immigrants or had the same kind of cultural crosspollination that this caused in the US.

None of that sentence, at least with regard to Canada, is true. Canadian immigration patterns closely mirrored the United States throughout the 19th century. Both nations had significant numbers of conquered peoples within their 1900 borders (French and Indians vs Mexican and Indians), although in America it was a much smaller proportion of the total population. Both countries had significant Chinese immigration during the railroad years, and both governments enacted measures to check it... likewise for Japanese immigration to their west coast fishing fleets. Both countries had substantial waves of Catholic Irish immigrants, and in both countries those Irish were treated badly at first. Up until 1890 in America, and 1900 in Canada, however, the vast majority of immigrants were from the British Isles (and to a lesser extent Germany), when the floodgates of Eastern Europe were finally opened up. Xenophobes in both countries worried about these new arrivals. The only other really significant difference in ethnicity was the American Negro, of course... however, the Underground Railroad did a fair bit to redress that difference too. And of course, as now, millions of Americans and Canadians crossed the border in both directions throughout the 19th century seeking better work, better land, etc.

Given Canada's generally better treatment of its native populations in this period, its peaceful abolition of slavery over two generations before America, and at least three ethnically-based rebellions (1837, 1870, and 1885), admittedly all quelled far more efficiently and satisfyingly than proved possible down south, it would be hard for Den Beste to make an argument that the positive (and negative) influences of ethnic diversity were unique to the States. One should not even need to point out the generally more rapid rise of the new arrivals to join society's elites in Canada--Canada's first prime minister, Macdonald, was a first-generation Scottish immigrant, and his closest colleague in government (and Canada's most famous political assassinee), McGee, was a first-generation Irish Catholic; not to mention the French-Canadian founders of Modern Canada, Lafontaine, Cartier and Laurier--but it was certainly faster than in the States, where electing even as innocuous a breed as an Irish Catholic to the presidency still had the power to shock some people even in 1960.

I agree, Canada has certainly followed a different political trajectory than the United States. But it's not because Canada in the 19th century was any less a nation of immigrants or of multiple cultures than its southern neighbour... if anything it was the other way around.

Posted by BruceR at 02:01 AM