what i'm reading: pierre berton

I've started Pierre Berton's The Promised Land: Settling the West 1896-1914, the book that follows Klondike. From the prologue:
This is a book about dreams and illusions, escape and survival, triumph and despair. It is also a book about foolish optimism, political cunning, naivete, greed, scandal and opportunism. It is a book about the search for Utopia, the promise of a Promised Land, and so it treats of hope, fulfilment, and liberation as well as drudgery, loneliness, and disenfranchisement. What we are dealing with here is a phenomenon rare, it not unique, in history: the filling up of an empty realm, a thousand miles broad, with more than one million people in less than one generation. [Ed note: the native peoples already had been forced to relocate for the building of the trans-Canada railroad.]

This, then, is the story of the creation of a state within a state and the resultant transformation of a nation. There are grafters in this tale and hard-nosed politicians and civic boosters with dollar signs in their eyes; but there are also idealists, dreamers, and visionaries.
So far I've been introduced to such outsized figures in Canadian history as Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior and the architect of Canada's first immigration policy, and John Wesley Dafoe, his editorial lackey. In American history terms, Sifton, called the Napoleon of the West, compares to Robert Moses, the Master Builder. Clifton's reach was longer than Moses's, but his reign didn't last as long.

In The Promised Land, Berton reveals evidence that contradicts the public image of both men. Dafoe apparently has been a legend in the media, with a heroic image as an independent and incorruptible editor in the days before such a thing existed. And indeed it did not exist. Dafoe's popular image was based on one incident in which his publisher - who was Clifford Sifton, although that fact was concealed for many years - allowed him his independence. And that incident stands out in a decades-long career in which Dafoe, like every other editor, wrote and ran what his publisher - who was usually a politician - told him to.

If you read, as I do, about the turn of the last century - the late 1800s to the early 1900s - you quickly learn two things, and you learn them over and over. In this sense I see that Canadian history is exactly the same as American history.

One, there was no such thing even resembling an objective press. Imagine 20 newspapers that are all Fox News, each blatantly doing the bidding of a different political party.

News stories read like editorials. Reporters wrote what their political bosses told them to write, and editors could be bought for a small fee, or, if they were very influential, for a large one. Bribery was the grease that kept the machine running, and patronage, in the form of advertising, was the glue that held it all together.

The second thing you immediately learn is that there were no such thing as fair elections. Voter turnout was massive - maybe 500% or 1000%, as people were usually paid to vote more than once.
In today's context, reports of political meetings at the turn of the century are hilarious, and it is difficult to believe that anybody but the faithful took them seriously, if, in fact, they read them at all. The newspaper's candidate - who was so often its publisher - was praised to the heavens. He invariably spoke to a large and deliriously enthusiastic crowd, who, it was reported, greeted his every statement with prolonged cheers. Incisive, clear-headed, totally convincing, he demolished his opponent, was was portrayed as a pathetic puppet, dancing to the tune of his party's machine. The day before the election each paper announced unreservedly that the candidate of its choice would sweep the polls and decimate the opposition. If he lost, the paper would explain that he had never had a chance because of rampant bribery on the part of the winner. . . .

The amount of newspaper space devoted to politics was awesome. Speeches were reported verbatim and often ran to several columns. Banner headlines, otherwise reserved for an earthquake or railway disaster, trumpeted each candidate's qualities and his opponent's shortcomings. A newcomer reading the Regina Leader, the Winnipeg Telegram, or the Edmonton Bulletin might easily have concluded that politics was a game that obsessed every man, woman and child on the prairies.

This was far from the truth. . . . Everybody, save for a small coterie of heelers and hacks, was far more concerned with clearing the land, ploughing the new fields, working a homestead, and making a living. The Machine got out the vote, but it was a five-dollar bill, a bottle of whisky or the promise of a job that brought an apathetic public to the polls.
Along with the major politicians and reformers of the time, this book is also introducing me to the first non-Anglo-Celtic immigrants to English Canada. These were Polish and Ukrainian people, termed "Galicians" in those days. They were escaping from grinding poverty and serfdom in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were swindled, cheated and betrayed at every turn, and the subservience ingrained from generations as serfs made them easy marks. They met with rampant prejudice and discrimination in a time when no one called it that.
At the turn of the century there were no discussions about "roots," no talk of "multiculturalism," little pandering to national cultures, and certainly no reference to a Canadian mosaic. The key word - the only word - was "assimilation." Assimilation meant conformity: in dress, in language, in customs, in attitudes, in religion. It meant, in short, that every immigrant who arrived in the West [i.e. Western Canada] was expected to accept as quickly as possible the Anglo-Celtic Protestant values of his Canadian neighbours. These attitudes were held almost universally and at every level of society. . . .

Everybody agreed that certain races could not be assimilated and had no place in Canadian society. Orientals, East Indians, and Blacks were not wanted. Anti-Semitism was universal, as the stereotyped caricatures in the newspapers make clear. And the press did not engage in racial niceties: Negroes were niggers; Orientals were Chinamen; Jews were sheenies.

Could the Galicians be assimilated or would their presence mongrelize the nation? That was the crux of the controversy from the moment of their arrival. It was generally held that they were an inferior race; that was not the argument. The question was whether or not they could be turned into "white" Canadians.
Whenever I read about the first wave of immigration to the US and Canada, it reinforces my belief that race is a social construct only, that the very concept of race is human-made. Once upon a time, there was thought to be a "Mediterranean race", a "Slavic race" and a "Jewish race". Now those people are thought of as white. Today people are called "biracial" when one parent is dark-skinned and one light-skinned - despite the fact that both parents' heritage probably contains both black and white people. There's supposed to be a Latin race and an Asian race - yet look at how many cultures and nationalities that covers, and aren't most Latinos also white or black or both? It's all nonsense.

Back to our Slavic immigrants. They were subject to fierce religious prejudice, of course, Catholics in a Protestant world. The Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists joined forces for the crusade. As one principal crusader put it, "...the interest of the state lies in doing all it can to assimilate these and other foreigners and make of them Canadians. They should be put into the great Anglo-Saxon mill and be ground up; in the grinding why lose their foreign prejudices and characters."

But, Berton writes, things did not work out that way.
Nobody has asked the Galicians whether or not they wished to be ground up in the great Anglo-Saxon mill. They clung tenaciously to their religion; indeed, the presence of Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches in the rural prairies acted as a spur to the retention of language and culture. Certainly, many were anxious to learn English and even more anxious that their children learn it. It is ironic that in this desire they were often frustrated by the lack of good teachers in their communities. But they also wanted to retain their original language, and this they did to a remarkable degree, producing an impressive body of prose and poetry in their own tongue. . . .

The newcomers and their children managed to become Canadians while retaining a pride in their heritage, as the Scots did, as the Icelanders and others did. By the First World War, when immigration ceased, the talk of assimilation began to abate. By the 1920s, the term "Galician" had died out. By then most Canadians were beginning to understand the difference between Poles and Ukrainians, for by then Polish and Ukrainian social and political clubs were scattered across the West. The time was coming when Canadians of every background would be referring to the Canadian Mosaic and indeed boasting about it as if it had been purposely invented as an instrument of national policy to preserve the Dominion from the conformity of the American Melting Pot.
I've only just started this book, but I can tell it's going to be fascinating.

No comments: