Garth Stevenson, Building Nations from Diversity:
Canadian and American Experience Compared.
Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014.

324 pages.

Garth Stevenson is no stranger to Inroads readers. He has written trenchantly, and with a measured lack of deference to prevailing opinion, on a variety of topics – most recently the demand for an inquiry into missing Aboriginal women (see p. 31 of this issue). He brings these same qualities to his treatment of issues of diversity, an ongoing interest of his and the subject of his most recent book.

Another characteristic of Stevenson’s work is his extensive familiarity with both Canada and the United States, allowing him to switch easily back and forth between the two. Too often the Canada-U.S. border is treated as a Great Wall, and what happens on one side of the border as an entirely separate matter from what happens on the other. While the subtitle of Stevenson’s book announces a comparison between Candian and American experience, what he really does is more subtle and more consistent with reality: he approaches the North American continent north of Mexico as an integrated whole, with the existence of two separate political entities being only one of many factors in play.

He acknowledges the differences, of course, initially rooted in the higher level of conformity required of citizens of a republic than of subjects of the British Crown. But he sees the stereotypical distinction between the American “melting pot” and the Canadian “mosaic” as overblown. And the case studies he presents – the Irish (both Catholic and Protestant), the Chinese, the Jews, the treatment of Japanese and other minorities in wartime, the recent experience of Muslim immigrants – lend credence to his contention that the similarities between the two countries outweigh the differences. Furthermore, he sees both countries’ experience with diversity as fundamentally positive. Here there is an implicit, and sometimes explicit, comparison with Europe, which has had to cope with diversity without its being woven into the fabric of European societies in the way that it is in North America:

Nation-building through immigration, or the ability to attract immigrants and then to integrate them into the host society, will … be North America’s greatest asset in the twenty-first century. Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia face a future of demographic decline with no end in sight. The United Kingdom and France are in a somewhat better situation because of immigration that comes mainly from their former overseas colonies, but neither the British monarchy (which practises a sort of multiculturalism) nor the French republic (which emphasizes uniformity) seems able to fully integrate its immigrants into the host society or to use their talents and skills to best advantage. That fact is both a cause and a consequence of the hostility to immigration that is evident in both of those countries.

Both the United States and Canada have learned, by trial and error, how to integrate their immigrants and turn them into Americans and Canadians, and thus it seems likely that both the United States and Canada will continue to grow and flourish. Even if the people who live in North America a century or two from now may differ from most present-day North Americans in some of their physical characteristics, they will still be recognizably Canadians and Americans, just as the descendants of Irish, Jewish, Italian, and Ukrainian immigrants are today.

Not everyone will agree with this optimistic conclusion. As I write, a debate is in progress about whether a Muslim woman can take the oath of Canadian citizenship wearing her niqab. This has become a partisan issue, which may persist into the fall election campaign: Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has strongly criticized a ban on the niqab; the Conservative government has strongly supported it. “Frankly, if you’re not willing to show your face in a ceremony that you’re joining the best country in the world,” said an Ontario Conservative MP, Larry Miller (Bruce–Grey–Owen Sound), “then frankly, if you don’t like that or don’t want to do that, stay the hell where you came from.”1 Whatever the merits of the case, the debate indicates that not all Canadians are as sanguine as Stevenson about the country’s capacity to absorb immigrants. In a different context, immigration has been a highly contentious issue in recent months in the United States as well.

Stevenson’s answer is: take the long view. We’ve seen all this before. Today it is Muslim immigrants who are regarded as unassimilable; in earlier generations it was Jewish and Chinese immigrants. Concerns about “radicalization” of Muslims find their parallel in the association of Jews with Communism. Nor are geopolitical concerns anything new, as Germans, Italians, Ukrainians and Japanese endured the status of enemy aliens during the two world wars.

In addition to Stevenson’s book, I recently read Irving Abella and Harold Troper’s 1982 classic None Is Too Many, cited by Stevenson as “perhaps the definitive book” on Canada’s unconscionably mean-spirited response to Jewish refugees before, during and after the Second World War. The themes of Jews being dangerously radical and not fitting in with other Canadians emerge repeatedly in the rhetoric of opposition to admitting Jewish refugees. Thus, after the 1938 Munich agreement transferred the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s Germany, Vincent Massey, Canada’s High Commissioner in London and one of the fiercest opponents of admitting Jewish refugees (and later the first Canadian-born Governor General), favoured admitting “Aryan Sudeten Germans” to Canada “as they include … many persons who would be much more desirable as Canadian settlers and much more likely to succeed in our country than certain other types of refugees.” At a public debate in Montreal in 1943 sponsored by the Association des Jeunes Laurentiens, one speaker argued that Quebec’s existing Jewish community had done little to earn its place in the community except elect Communist Fred Rose to Parliament.2

The Jewish refugee crisis was solved only with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and Canada did not change its policy on the admission of Jewish immigrants until the early 1950s. Yet from the vantage point of present-day Canada, all this seems almost unimaginable. Jews have occupied senior positions in successive federal cabinets – including the current Finance Minister, Joe Oliver. There are Jewish Supreme Court justices and university presidents. Jews are prominent in business and their achievements in the arts have been widely recognized in both Quebec and English Canada. The trajectory of the Jews provides strong evidence for Stevenson’s conclusion that negative attitudes “tend to decline as a new and less familiar group of immigrants arrives and the earlier immigrants or their descendants come to be viewed as normal, familiar, and harmless.”

This process requires conditions that prevail in North America but not in Europe, and even North America has its own mini-Europe: Quebec. Stevenson notes that as in most European countries, but not the rest of Canada or the United States, “the great majority of population share a common ancestry and cultural heritage and are descended from people who lived there as long as perhaps four centuries ago.” Quebec, like some European countries, has gone through a transition from dominance by the Catholic Church to an aggressive secularism. And Quebec resembles Europe more than the rest of North America in being preoccupied with the issue of demographic decline.

These circumstances provide useful background to the series of dramas Quebec has experienced in recent years, from the reasonable accommodations crisis of 2006–07 through the Bouchard-Taylor Commission and Bill 94 to the charter of values in 2013–14. However, Quebec does practise its own form of cultural diversity, which it refers to as “interculturalism” to distinguish it from Canadian multiculturalism. In Stevenson’s view, there is not much difference between interculturalism and multiculturalism in practical terms, “except for the fact that Quebec gives priority to the French language while the federal government is formally neutral between English and French.” (In his book on interculturalism, recently published in English translation, Gérard Bouchard makes rather more of this distinction than Stevenson does, arguing that interculturalism is more suited to a society where there is a longstanding majority language and culture, while multiculturalism is more suited to a society such as Canada where there is no single such culture. He acknowledges, however, that despite their theoretical differences the two models have converged somewhat in practice in recent years.3)

Stevenson devotes considerably more attention to the cultural and political issues surrounding immigration than to the economic ramifications, although these are a major concern of policymakers in Ottawa and Washington. The new express entry system that went into effect at the beginning of January seeks to match immigration into Canada more closely with the labour market. The economic focus of Canadian immigration policy is not without its critics. Some, such as economist Herbert Grubel, who in a 2014 Inroads article suggested making a prearranged job in Canada a requirement for immigration, maintain that the link between immigration and short-term economic gain should be even stronger than it is.4 Others, such as Naomi Alboim and Karen Cohl, advocate a broader set of goals for immigration policy, including long-term social and economic objectives, a commitment to citizenship and enhancing Canada’s reputation around the world.5

The proper balance between hard economic objectives and less tangible goals will no doubt continue to be a matter of controversy in both Canada and the United States. What seems clear, however, is that the optimistic scenario Stevenson presents is dependent on the two countries’ ongoing capacity to offer immigrants a promising economic future. Without that capacity, North America’s history of successful integration of immigrants may not be a reliable guide to what will happen in years to come.



He was speaking on an open-line show on radio station CFOS in Owen Sound, Ontario, on March 16.

2 Irving Abella and Harold Troper, None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933–1948 (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1982), pp. 48, 163.

3 Gérard Bouchard, Interculturalism: A View from Quebec, translated by Howard Scott, foreword by Charles Taylor (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015). See also the review of the original French-language edition of this book by Pierre Joncas, “The Perils of Gérard Bouchard’s Interculturalism,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2013, pp. 138–143.

4 Herbert Grubel, “Making Canada’s Immigrant Selection Policies Work,” Inroads, Winter/Spring 2014, pp. 84–95.

5 Naomi Alboim and Karen Cohl, Shaping the Future: Canada’s Rapidly Changing Immigration Policies (Toronto: Maytree Foundation, 2012), retrieved here.