Gatekeepers

gatekeepersIn this fascinating history, Franca Iacovetta studies the way in which “gatekeepers” — institutions large and small, as well as front-line individuals such as social workers, settlement house staff, psychologists, journalists, and many more — shaped the “Canadianizing” of immigrants during the Cold War. This ideological, political, and ethical battle for the ethnic shape of the country turns out to be a surprisingly engaging and gripping read, and one with many implications for today’s quite similar, but more racialized, war on terror.

The scale of immigration to Canada after the second World War is almost unimaginable today. Canada was a country of 11 million people at the time, and during those decades, they received over 2 million immigrants from Britain and Europe. As a percentage of their existing population, it was staggering, and the institutional infrastructure needed to provide help and services to these people — many of them deeply traumatized by war, rape, camps, communist regimes, and other experiences — was overwhelming. The goal for the government as well as for middle-class Canadians was to show ethnic immigrants the “Canadian way of life,” meaning middle-class values, affluence, family structure, democracy, and so on, and to try to change the immigrants’ less acceptable habits into conformity with their new surroundings. The “gatekeepers” that these immigrants met at every level — from immigration officials to medical personnel to the way immigrants were represented in the press — played a role in these changes. “Integration, not assimilation” was the watchword, but the difference between the two was often blurred during those Communist-fearing years, as it certainly was in the United States.

Iacovetta is a feminist, labor, gender, and migration historian, and all of those things mingle in this book. Each chapter takes a different aspect of immigrant experience and explores different aspects of it: popular advice experts, for instance, like advice columnists, and front-line workers like settlement house workers, and the way their often biased if well-meaning judgments affected the lives of individual men and women. I was especially drawn to the chapters like “Culinary Containment” and “The Sexual Politics of Survival and Citizenship,” that talked about women’s experience. Women, more than men, bore the burden of the expectations of moral decency: if they’d had questionable sexual histories during the war or after it, whether out of necessity or desire, they often faced harsh judgments from people who had not been in their situation. Food and parenting were other contested categories for women, who were expected to nourish their children properly in order to bring up good, healthy new Canadian citizens. They had to meet the nutritional expectations of the gatekeepers, and yet not lose their ethnic food heritage: established middle-class Canadians often criticized the Italians, the Portuguese, the Germans, the Slavs (pretty much everyone except the Dutch, it turns out) for one nutritional crime or another.

The “integration, not assimilation” rhetoric, and the “mosaic” or “salad bowl” images (as opposed to the “melting pot” images used in the United States at this time) imply that Canada thought of immigration, at least theoretically, as a two-way street, something from which both parties could benefit. But Iacovetta makes it clear that established Canadians did not intend to change in any substantive way from the influx of immigrants. Instead, they intended to take interesting or quaint customs — food, folk dance — and valuable assets — labor, consumer dollars — and nothing else. Particularly during the Cold War, the dissenting voice of the immigrant was totally undesirable. The RCMP watched left-wing or subversive immigrants carefully for any hint of Communist tendencies, and these tendencies were crushed as much as they were in the United States and even pathologized as mental illness.

This book was wonderfully complete and readable, and it’s full of case studies, individual stories, archival photos, and tidbits of history you can remember and bring out later. I got the recommendation years ago from Melwyk at the Indextrious Reader, and it’s as interesting as she said it was. If you’re interested in women’s history, Cold War history, Canada, or just well-written social history, this book is for you.

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5 Responses to Gatekeepers

  1. This sounds absolutely fascinating! My mother immigrated to Canada from Central Europe during this period and as familiar as I am with her experiences it will be interesting to read about what others went through.

    • Jenny says:

      I think it would be especially interesting if you had personal experience to bring to it. I have a good friend whose grandfather immigrated from Holland just at this time, and I kept thinking of him and his family, and shooting him emails to ask, “Did you” and “Was it” and so forth.

  2. Thank you so much for featuring this! I read so much non-fiction from the US point of view, but very rarely get to see something like this and it sounds wonderful.

    • Jenny says:

      I totally agree. Getting the Canadian perspective was at least half the fun. And I kept thinking of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (perhaps my favorite of her books) and those normalizing Canadian middle-class experiences. Totally fascinating.

  3. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    That sounds like a remarkable book. I imagine the situation in Australia was comparable, though I have no idea how it was handled in practical terms. The post-war decade brought a million extra people to the country (from a popular of 7 million – so quite a significant percentage).

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