Tuesday, 16 February 2016

The Usual Bee in Same Old Bonnet

The other day the McLeans were in Lovecrumbs, a splendid tea shop near the Grassmarket, when a loud Canadian girl contrasted what she saw as Canadian culture versus European culture. She told two other tourists, both German-speaking, that Canada had never had a culture to protect, as European countries did, and had never been interested in preserving the past, etc. Canada was just made up of immigrants and always had been.

This, of course, was garbage. However, the woman couldn't have been any older than 30 and she mentioned that her own parents were immigrants (perhaps they are from the UK, which this girl visits often), so very likely she had no idea that History As It Has Been Taught Since 1967 was not taught that way before 1967. She had also clearly forgotten about Quebec and the Atlantic provinces, to say nothing of the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Whatsitsname, the New One.

When my mother was born, English-speaking Canada (at any rate) still considered itself Canada, Faithful Daughter of the British Empire. However, the Forties, Fifties and Sixties witnessed a shift from British-derived identity to an appreciation of what made Canada unique.  A scholarly interest in English-language Canadian art, music and literature sprang up. (French-Canadian culture is so incredibly rich, and always has been, that it goes without saying.) Just off the top of my head, important Canadian writers of the 1945-1967 era included Raymond Souster, Hugh MacLennan, Irving Layton, Earle Birney, Morley Callaghan, Margaret Laurence,  Margaret Avison, Dorothy Livesay, Robertson Davies, the young Margaret Atwood, the young Mordecai Richler.

Of course there were important Canadian writers before them--Stephen Leacock, for example--but we're looking at the last moments in Canadian culture before the immigration experience (immediate or borrowed from ancestors) was considered the all-Canadian rite of passage. My great-grandfather's accent was unusual enough in Toronto of the early 1900s that his workmates called him "Scotty." He was indeed a Scot, but his children were Canadians, and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren were also Canadians, and this caused a deceptively small social problem when the ideological winds changed, the Two Solitudes became the Multicultural Mosaic, and immigration replaced Canada-Unties-the-Apron-Strings-to-Britain as the overarching theme of Canadian thought. What ethnic dishes were the formerly non-ethnic children to bring to school for "Multicultural Day"? White sliced bread from Miracle Mart? Mama mia, what the "Italian" kids would have said about that.

The great Canadian experiment in creating a unified English-speaking Canadian culture was arguably born in the trenches of the First World War and arguably died soon after Canada got her new, history-wiping, flag in 1965. Fortunately a Canadian obsession with the Canadian English literature still exists, and so Canadians continue to write feverishly about life in Canada in English. You can write in Bengali or Polish all you like, but if you want the rest of Canada to give two hoots for your work, you will have to write in English, too. (Or French, naturally.) There are also winter sports, although my firm belief that street hockey is the great integrator of immigrant children became terminally ill the day my eyes fell upon children in Montreal playing street cricket. Cricket. In the streets of Montreal. Sharia law, here we come.

And this is why this blog is so fascinated by European attempts to keep Europe European, let alone to keep Poland Polish, France French, Czech Czech, etc. Can they do it? And if they can't, what will happen to Canadian-style diversity? How will a German-Canadian be able to claim Germanity when she doesn't speak a word of Turkish?

Scotland is almost entirely Scottish and yet goes into fainting fits at the very thought of the migration policies of UKIP. Being 83% ethnic Scottish, Scotland is indifferent to mass migration--despite the upheaval and violence resulting from Irish mass migration in the 19th century. As you can see from the handy-dandy chart, the biggest change to the demographics of Scotland from 2001 to 2011 was the introduction of 69,000+ Asians, 61,000+ Poles and 4,000+ Gypsies. 134,000 people is not a drop in a bucket, but it is only a tenth of the number of migrants and refugees who have made it to Europe in the past twelve months, never mind in the past 10 years. (A goodly number of the 69,000+ new Asians had probably moved from England or been born in Scotland anyway.)

Anyway, it is always interesting to be a Canadian in the middle of huge, history shaking, European events, as my Canadian grandfather (WW II) and Scottish-Canadian grandfather (WW I) might have agreed. Scotland certainly hasn't been an ethnic monolith since the Second World War--we chatted happily with the maitre d' at Bar Italia (est. 1978) in Italian on Sunday--but there have been dramatic changes since Poland, for example, joined the EU. The most obvious is the rapid-fire Polish on the bus at any hour of the day or night, on which I enjoy eavesdropping. Another is the appearance of Gypsies begging on the streets. There are now at least four distinct classes of beggar in Edinburgh: Scottish, English, Polish and Gypsy. The older Gypsies sometimes have some frightful looking amputations. They render them somewhat alarming, although not as alarming as the Scottish ones when they are off their heads on smack, poor souls.


  1. My 2 1/2 year old son and I discovered a Canadian educational YouTube channel where they have educational songs/videos. They a very catchy (ear worm stuff) and one of his favourites is "The Pravences of Canada". He can now name most of them and his favourite is the new territory. I think he likes how it feels to say it.

    Anyway, when I was at high school I was very much given the impression that there was no real Australian history outside of Aboriginal dream time stories, but then later in my twenties I did a subject at a Catholic University on Australian History and wow! Suddenly I understood the background to so many rivalries, prejudices and attitudes that I had just taken for granted in our current culture.
    I had also been fed the line that we are all immigrants so we don't really have a culture to defend.

    Aussie girl in NZ

  2. I wonder if they would have taken that tack if the birth control pill had not been invented. On the other hand, immigrant adults are apparently cheaper than children and start paying taxes sooner. A disposable attitude towards children leads to a disposable attitude towards adults and their culture and then towards everything else except the system, as any system is ultimately there to keep the system going.

  3. That kind of thinking exists or has been forced upon Americans too. It is really demoralizing to society and its members. It teaches people that their country and somewhat by extend they themselves have no value or meaning.